I’m still digging around in research for my current, very tentative, historical idea. I’m thinking the village I talked about last time has lost its inhabitants to industries which pay better than farming small plots. And I’m thinking whatever cottage industry once paid women has also died, so young people packed up and left, and there’s no one left.
If I’m aiming for a Regency-era story, then I know the fashion for buckles died abruptly about 1786. Manufacturers
collapsed. Buckle making components were once farmed out to householders who put the various bits together and got paid by the travelers who brought them the materials..
However, after the demise of the buckle market, the button making industry grew. So I’m digging around to see if anything interesting turns up. (Writers waste a lot of time falling down these bunny holes that seldom end up anywhere!)
So here are the fun facts I’ve found— The earliest known button dates back 5000 years to Pakistan and was merely a carved shell fitted to a loop to attach to the fabric. Buttonholes hadn’t been invented and buttons were mostly like brooches—decorative only.
The Romans, however, occasionally used buttons as closures. Heavy fabrics like linen and wool required more than a pin, so substantial buttons made of bone, horn, or bronze, were used with button slits and knots, although buttons of this type were more architectural than beautiful. Securing fabric with a knot still worked best, with a pretty button as a decoration.
By the middle of the 11th century, clothes became more close fitting than togas.
Thick pins poked holes in fabrics, especially silks, so buttons finally found a purpose in creating the tight lines of fashion among all the yards of fabric. Let us keep in mind that it was men wearing those buttoned up, tight-fitting vests. . . Women still used lacing.
Although slits in fabric to hold the button had been used since Roman times, we all know what happens to slits that aren’t reinforced, so buttonholes had limited usage. And then, voila, Germans invented the reinforced buttonhole! Now buttons could be used to fasten shoes, tunics, hoods, and those snug-fitting. . . vests? Where would pantaloons be without them? Which came first, the button or the garment? Inquiring minds quit there.
Anyway—the first button-makers guild formed in France in 1250. They were still regarded as a form of jewelry and restricted by sumptuary laws. They were not inexpensive. If you wore too many buttons, the law could came after you for flaunting your wealth. (As a side note—maybe we should return to sumptuary laws so Rolexes don’t tempt thieves. . .)
By this point in time, the button was attached using a shank on the back, so the front could be carved, painted, gilded, whatever the jeweler or owner preferred. Buttons were so valuable that a man could pay off a debt by cutting off one of his buttons.
By the 18th century, buttons could include keepsakes like hair or insects or flowers and were even used by smugglers to hide jewels. As buttons became a part of
every outfit, tailors and seamstresses for the wealthy began setting male buttons on the right, so men could fasten them themselves. Women had ladies’ maids, so their buttons went on the left for the ease of the maid. Pity we still don’t have maids today—or manufacturers haven’t figured out that the majority of women are right-handed, just like men. For once, left-handed women have the advantage!
Sources claim the first political button was George Washington’s in 1789. The button could be used to close breeches (!!!! The mental image is. . . staggering) or a jacket while broadcasting the person’s political affiliation. Charming. Political buttons were a little less. . . functional. . . by the time Lincoln ran for office.
And let us face it—buttons were expensive unless one made one’s own. A fortunate working class family might have a button mold, similar to a bullet mold. They’d pour hot lead or pewter into the mold and set it on hot coals to form a button shape. If they had enough leisure time, they could paint it or cover it with cloth.
And this is where my story would step in—if you can make your own, you can also make them to sell. So far, I haven’t turned up much interesting history so this may
fall by the wayside along with all the other rooting around I’ve been doing. But in the Regency era, handmade buttons were still a thing. By 1852, though, button making had become a mechanized process with tons of patents involved for glass or pearl or wire buttons and even the cards
on which they were displayed.
And after all those years of developing gorgeous buttons, these days, we now seem to be down to bits of cheap plastic that break off if you look at them crooked. Do you remember real buttons, in all the fun colors, shapes, and materials? (see top photo) Did you ever collect them? I can remember going to the store and buying fabulous buttons for the clothes I made myself or to replace the ugly ones on store-bought clothes. I should have kept that button jar!