We absolutely adore antique jet glass buttons. These coal-colored beauties hold a unique standing as icons of Victorian-era fashion and culture. They stand out as the most historically storied of the many pretty and rare Victorian-era buttons, patiently waiting to be rediscovered in dusty button boxes.
The first jet buttons were manufactured from an organic mineral created from a tree species that flourished 180 million years ago. The best jet was found near a British seaside village called Whitby. Jet is robust, easy to shape, and, when polished, has a gorgeous velvet luster making it an excellent choice for manufacturing buttons and jewelry. By the early 19th-century, jet mining was fully commercialized in the Whitby cliffs.
Jet’s popularity took off after it was exhibited with exuberant fanfare at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The exhibition prompted renowned royals like the Queen of Bavaria and the Empress of France to start wearing jet buttons. However, jet’s most influential patron was undoubtedly Queen Victoria herself.
After her husband died, Queen Victoria set the most exacting example of chaste widowhood by wearing mourning attire for the rest of her life. She insisted on jet buttons and commanded her courtiers to follow her lead. So you could say that Prince Albert inadvertently made black buttons all the rage by dying of typhoid fever in 1861.
Queen Victoria in mourning in the late 1860s.
Curators for the Museum of London preparing one of Victoria’s gowns for display, in a photograph that clearly shows the diminutive stature of the 4’ 8” monarch.
Mourning rituals were serious business in Victorian England. One might even call the Victorian era the golden age of mourning. For Victorians, to die and not be appropriately mourned was considered a tragedy worse than death, so immortalizing and remembering the dead took on enormous societal importance. Mourning rituals, especially those honoring the loss of a husband, were arduous, specific, and complicated. So much so that many middle-class housewives consulted manuals like Queen and Cassell's to ensure they got it right.
After losing a husband, a widow was expected to signal her changed social status for many years to come. She wore somber clothing as a constant symbol of her now more vulnerable societal status. Her black gowns signaled the loss of financial protection and the domestic stability of marriage but also her status and taste.
Closeups of some mourning gowns, including one of Queen Victoria's, with beautiful, jet glass buttons in combinations of matte and sparkling glass, which were only considered appropriate in the second year of mourning.
Widows were expected to wear only dull black fabrics and black matte buttons during their first year of mourning. They also had to wear a heavy black bonnet and veil while in public. During the second year, they could spice it up by wearing half matte and half shiny buttons accompanied by a little white lace or trim. Three years after the passing of her husband, a woman could break out and wear grey or lavender-colored dresses.
Mourning customs applied to all social classes. Families who couldn't afford new wardrobes often hurriedly dyed their existing clothes black and changed out the buttons. Many Victorian households were financially devastated from covering the funeral expenses of a loved one.
It was these Victorian mourning etiquettes that fueled a lucrative demand for jet buttons. However, jet was a finite resource, and therefore authentic jet buttons were prohibitively expensive for most people. A growing middle-class created a substantial demand for black buttons and so people sought out alternatives like black glass.
A stunning 19th century sample card of Bohemian jet glass buttons from our museum.
Black glass was invented by the renowned Venetian glass artist Andrea Videos in the late 17th century. In the Victorian era, most glass buttons were manufactured in Bohemia in the eastern part of the Czech Republic. Czech glass artisans mastered their trade over many centuries. They were the first to heat rods of colored glass over a lamp and then hand-press the molten liquid into iron molds.
By the 1860s, engravers were creating astoundingly intricate and detailed iron molds in thousands of beautiful patterns. Czech artisans were also finishing their black glass buttons by hand applying gold, silver, or copper luster. By the end of the century, they'd invented an iridescent coating that created lovely rainbows in their black glass creations. Lampworking processes massively increased the speed of manufacturing, thus reducing the cost of glass buttons and making them both popular and accessible.
Button collectors determine the integrity of an actual jet button by its feel and the placement of its shank. A jet button is warm to the touch, scratches easily, and has a velvety rather than slick surface. A glass button is heavier, harder, and feels cold when you touch it. If the shank is embedded in the button, it's glass. If the shank is glued or pinned to the outside, it's more likely jet.
The popularity of black glass buttons started to fade in the 1880s as bright-colored accessories came into vogue. The demand for black glass buttons also declined due to the relaxing of Victorian mourning protocols. World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic caused a horrific number of deaths, and people just didn't have the time, resources, or inclination to adhere to strict mourning protocols. By 1920, people were eager to put their sorrow behind them and embrace the colorful frenzy of the Roaring Twenties.
Black buttons faded into obscurity during the Jazz Age, relegated to dusty button boxes and warehouses for collectors to find. Today they are sought by folks like us who adore their delicate and intricate beauty and their tiny but profound expressions of loss and hope.
Read more about antique and vintage buttons and glass, their history and our collection on our Buttonology Blog.