Tag: history of buttons

Who invented buttons?

Who invented buttons?

Now, this seems a silly question. You might answer who cares. Buttons are trivial nonessentials to everyday life. But since my week strangely enough has been besieged by buttons, I asked myself this question. Who invented buttons?

My week started ordinarily enough but then on two separate occasions; a button popped off my dress. Two occasions, two different dresses. Now you may say, “well, all your dresses must be close to their use by date.” And this could be true. I do hang onto things a little longer than the average girl. Returning home from the second outing minus another button, I decided to replace the missing buttons. Being a thrifty baby boomer, I had a ready supply of spare buttons in an allocated tin. My father who taught me such thriftiness, would have been proud of my preparedness.

Sorting buttons, Am I mad?

The buttons I needed were not immediately found in the large tin, so I poured the contents of the whole tin into a salad bowl and started sorting. By the end of an hour and two cups of tea later (plus one and a half slices of lemon madeira cake), I had piles of buttons sorted by colour. There were lots of white shirt buttons, and less of the coloured versions. The three orange buttons were an unexpected find.

Buttons sorted, I sewed on the missing dress buttons and put all the sewing paraphernalia away. If you have survived reading this far, well done! Silly lady chatter. This boring mundane activity did not pique my interest into the origins of the button. It was the next day at my weekly women’s group where rather than our usual mystery guest speaker, we had instead a craft activity. And, oh no, the craft material provided was, you guessed, it buttons. We were like kindergarteners or those at the other end of life, the nursing home inmates, making cards using buttons (and a few bows.)

The history of buttons

So, this weird coincidence led me to ponder the meaning of life, according to buttons. Who invented buttons? Were they always for fastening clothes? Let’s unpack a bit of fashion history. Buttons are traced to the Indus Valley (Pakistan) circa 2800 BC, Scotland c 2000BC and in the Bronze Age sites in China and Ancient Rome. So, buttons have been around a fair time. They were used for ornamental purposes on fabric but not as fasteners, just for decoration. The first buttons were made from seashells and then later of the newly formed metal, alloy of bronze made from copper and tin.

The development of buttons follows the history of materials available to man. Over their history, buttons have been crafted from shells, ivory, metal, glass, silk, enamel, leather, enamel, wood, china and plastic. Buttons used for fastening date to the Roman Empire where leatherwork shows buttonholes. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that where there were buttonholes there were buttons. These were evidenced in leather satchels before use on clothes and shoes. By the Byzantine, there were buttons to fasten cuffs and necks of shirts and tunics and for sleeves and necklines for women’s dresses.

The word ‘button’ comes from a German word meaning ‘to push through’ which makes sense once the buttonhole emerged.

Buttons as status symbols

At some time, the side on which the button was sewn became gender assigned.  The left for women and the right for men. This is believed to be due to a man having to draw his weapon from left to right without slicing off his supply of buttons. Another reason is that the maids need to dress their ladies with their right hand, and this is easier if the buttons are on the left. The badge like buttons also emerged and worn to advertise allegiance to a group or army. Soldier buttons could even serve as lockets with locks of their beloved one’s hair kept inside close to their heart. With all buttons, the fancier the button, the higher the status of the wearer. Buttons were status symbols just like rings and jewelry can be today.

Why do the Amish ban buttons?

Maybe this is why the Amish people ban buttons, calling them along with many other modernities, ‘proud.’Buttons are a sign of individuality and vanity, two things the Amish try to avoid. By not wearing buttons, all members of the community look the same regardless of their wealth or social standing. Anything individual brings attention to oneself, so buttons are not on the Amish agenda. Uniformity is the key.

I would not be happy as an Amish woman. I love colour and diversity in clothing. It makes me feel happy. That is why I wrote a book about colour; Colour Comes to Tangles.

Buttons for everyone

Moving on; The Industrial Revolution brought buttons and many other products to the masses. Buttons now could be made en masse not singly by artisans. The simple flat button with two or four holes was easier to manufacture than a button with a stud or post or a cuff-link toggle style. Most shirt and dress buttons were flat and white or bone coloured and this is still true today.

Then came the zipper

With time, other forms of fastening clothes evolved such as the press stud, hook and eye and the zipper. The last, the clasp fastener or zipper as it is now known, has revolutionised clothing, handbags and many, many other everyday objects. No one individual is responsible but a series of gentlemen. see the zipper link. 

Elias Howe, Jr. (1819–1867), the inventor of the sewing machine, received a patent in 1851 for an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.” Elias did not pursue marketing his clothing closure system and so missed his chance to become the “Father of the Zip.”

Forty-four years later, Whitcomb Judson (1846–1909) marketed a “Clasp Locker” device similar to Howe’s idea. As first to market, Whitcomb became the “inventor of the zipper.” However, his 1893 patent did not use the word zipper.

The 1851 Chicago “Clasp Locker” was first a hook-and-eye shoe fastener, a redesign of Elias Howe’s. Colonel Lewis Walker, Whitcomb launched the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture the new device. The clasp locker made its debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair but was met with little enthusiasm. Instead, Swedish-born electrical engineer, Gideon Sundback (1880–1954) made the zipper the hit it is today.

The “zipper” name came from the B. F. Goodrich Company, which used Sundback’s fastener on rubber boots. or galoshes. However, it took 20 more years to convince the fashion industry to use the closure on garments.

In the 1930s, a sales campaign began for children’s clothing featuring zippers. The campaign promoted zippers for self-reliance in young children as zippers made it possible for children to dress themselves.

No more buttons for the fly.

In 1937, the zipper beat the button in the “Battle of the Fly.” French fashion designers used zippers in men’s trousers and Esquire magazine declared the zipper the way to go for men. There would be no more peep hole embarrassments caused by missing or undone buttons. But the men still had to remember to zip their fly!

The next big boost for the zipper came when zippers could open on both ends such as on jackets. Today the zipper is everywhere. But we still have buttons!  Those cute little fasteners that led to the saying ‘as cute as a button.

Joni Scott is an Australian author with four published novels: Whispers through Time, The Last Hotel Colour Comes to Tangles and her latest historical WWI drama, Time Heal my Heart. Joni has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.

Photo by elnaz asadi on Unsplash



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