Once Upon a Time - Victorian-Era Picture Buttons

Picture button is a modern-day collector's term for antique Victorian-era metal buttons decorated with images instead of geometrical patterns. The earliest picture buttons hail from the late 18th century, with pictorial tableaus stamped or cast onto their surfaces, usually in brass. 

However, the buttons that modern collectors commonly refer to as picture buttons were manufactured a century later, starting around 1870. These buttons were a fashion craze in the late 1800s and remained trendy until 1905. In the closing decades of the 19th century, women started ornamenting their already lavish bustled and ruffled gowns with ever larger and more detailed buttons.

Most often made of stamped brass, they depicted the fascinations and obsessions of their owners, which included popular operas and plays, ancient myths and cultures, historical landmarks, all manner of flora and fauna, children's stories, and nursery rhymes.

Many of the subjects depicted on these buttons would today be considered quite bizarre. In our museum, you'll find Victorian buttons depicting a rooster playing the guitar, several versions of the common house fly, and spiders. 

Victorian-Era Antique Picture Buttons - Buttonology Blog
Several of the buttons in our museum are shown on this page from the spring 1886 edition of Ridley's Fashion Magazine from New York City.

We know that the picture buttons in our collection hail from this era; however, it's hard to pinpoint their manufacture date more precisely because most of their makers continuously repeated their designs. Additionally, designs were commonly re-issued or pirated from one manufacturer to another. For this reason, we often find the same image on many different mountings. 

Victorian-era picture buttons were used as both fasteners or purely decorative clothing elements for both adults and children. Sometimes the larger buttons were sewn into dress panels or used to fasten coats. Other times matching pairs were converted into clasps to fasten a belt or the neck of a jacket.

Victorian-Era Antique Picture Buttons - Buttonology Blog

Many button collectors keep an eye out for Victorian cabinet cards that show prominent buttons on the subjects' gowns. They then display the card with an example of the button pictured. These are shown in our button museum.

These alternately handsome and quirky buttons were produced in the USA, France, Austria, Germany, and England. In fact, large numbers of these intriguing buttons were sold in newly popular American department stores.

Motifs for picture buttons were lifted from every possible source, including contemporary illustrations, photographs, and advertising announcements. Fashion trends and current events also inspired many images. For instance, the appearance of several comets in the late 19th century inspired the production of lyrical man-in-the-moon buttons, many with shooting stars. Picture buttons also commemorated the first bicycles, trains, and automobiles. 

Adults and children also collected buttons featuring dogs, cats, and fairy tale characters. In fact, many Victorian-era picture buttons made for ladies' gowns depict playing children and scenes from beloved nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The popularity of these buttons mirrored the changing societal definitions of childhood during this time. 

Victorian-Era Antique Picture Buttons - Buttonology Blog

A card of Victorian canine picture buttons from our button museum.

Until the late 19th century, children were commonly treated like miniature adults and were expected to endure adult hardships and responsibilities. The concept of childhood as a time of innocence and carefree happiness came into vogue in the late 19th century, around the same time as picture buttons. 

No Victorian artist expressed this romantic vision of childhood better than famous illustrator Kate Greenaway who published her first book in 1979. Her books were replete with idyllic pastoral scenes of children dressed in simpler fashions ideal for unhindered play. They so captured public taste that women across Europe and America started dressing their children in Kate Greenaway-style pantaloons and bonnets and wearing brass picture buttons based on Greenaway designs on their own gowns. 

Victorian-Era Antique Picture Buttons - Buttonology Blog

Our card of children’s stories and nursery rhymes from the museum includes such well-known characters as the Pied Piper, Tom Thumb; Rumplestiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Henny Penny, and Winken, Blynken and Nod.

The enormous variety of subject matters depicted on picture buttons was spurred by printing press advancements that fueled other popular Victorian-era pastimes like collecting picture scraps and trading printed cards.  

We're forever in awe of how the miniature tableaus depicted on antique buttons provide intriguing insights into the daily goings on in Victorian-era households. Ever-present and innocuous, buttons often inadvertently captured Victorian-era societal obsessions that the history books miss. This is especially true for our beautiful, rare, collectible Picture Buttons.

Shop the collection: Family Editions

Read more: Buttonology Blog