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Button Up a Nifty Collection

Why old clothing buttons are collectible and how much they're worth

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Bakelite Carved Button

Carved Bakelite buttons like this one can be worth $5-10 each, but figural examples shaped like pelicans, elephants and clothespins can bring $25-50 apiece

- Pamela Y. Wiggins

Have you ever thought about collecting clothing buttons? This means really collecting them, intentionally. Because that fruit jar filled with extra shirt buttons taking up space in a dark corner of your closet doesn't really count.

Truthfully, unless you accidentally saved just the right kind of shirt button from a really old garment, you won't find too much in that jar for a collector to get overly excited about. Actually taking the time to amass a thoughtful collection of clothing buttons can be a rewarding hobby, but only if you take it to the next level.

Why Would Anyone Collect Buttons?

Button collectors take simple, utilitarian objects taken for granted by millions of people each day and group them into delightful displays that make you stop and think.

When eyeing a display of old buttons, you might ponder the type of garment that originally held a 100-year-old painted porcelain example. You might even go one step further and wonder about what type of person wore the garment when it was new.

Other times a button collection might bring back childhood memories. After all, some folks put together nice groupings of buttons from scouting uniforms. Colorful buttons from children's clothing in whimsical shapes like bunnies, puppies and apples stir fond recollections as well.

Some buttons, such as those from the uniforms of soldiers, police officers and other civil servants, remind us how much those individuals have impacted so many lives over the decades.

Then there are those who have a penchant for textiles or sewing and buttons serve as a natural extension of those interests. And collectors of Bakelite, painted porcelain, and jasperware find buttons made of these materials go right along with their other interesting displays.

What Actually Makes a Button Collectible?

Technically, even that aforementioned jar of old shirt buttons holds some collector value. After all, there may be someone out there trying to see just how many different shirt button variations they can come up with over time. But the majority of the buttons avid collectors seek have some special qualities.

Many collectors look for buttons reflecting different styles to document history. After all, the way buttons were manufactured 200 years ago certainly differs from today's techniques. Clothing buttons were made from hand cut glass, molded clay and hand-decorated porcelain in the past, among other materials. This contrasts starkly with the machine molded plastic buttons we find on most modern garments.

"Famous potters and silversmiths of [the 18th] century fashioned buttons with the same beauty as their vases and jewelry," said Sally C. Luscomb in The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (Schiffer Books).

Another theme in button collecting is portraits, which look like miniature works of art. Finely crafted and expertly painted buttons are more desirable than those decorated amateurishly or with decals.

Some button collections are made up of a few of this and a few of that, basically whatever the owner finds to be appealing. By and large though, buttons in odd shapes and sizes, comprised of unusual materials, or of an unusual origin can be the most appealing to avid collectors, and hold the most value.

What Makes a Button Valuable?

In general, clothing button prices can range from a few cents to a few hundred dollars each. Only rare examples in excellent condition bring high dollar values. These buttons are hard to come by these days.

There is also the competition factor to consider. Buttons from Revolutionary War or Civil War uniforms might interest button collectors, but there are collectors of military memorabilia that will pay several hundred dollars apiece to own certain examples as well. These buttons are usually made of metal and some are located with metal detectors and dug from the dirt in battlefields. But rare rubber (also known as vulcanite,) examples from 1800s uniforms also surface from time to time.

Buttons gleaned from clothing worn by celebrities or sports stars can also be quite valuable, if the provenance is verifiable. Buying a piece of clothing in poor condition at auction might not be such a bad proposition if it contains a number of buttons and scraps of fabric that can be salvaged along with them. These can be sold individually to collectors who would relish owning a little piece of pop culture or sports history.

Out of the ordinary examples can also be valuable. Take a brass button depicting Theodore Roosevelt hunting big game from 1904. These can sell in the $75-150 range depending on the scene shown on the button, since there were several different examples made.

Embellishments like hand painting and enameling on antique French or Victorian buttons can lead them to be worth $200 or more. Old pottery buttons crafted and hand painted by American Indians can also sell in that price range. And, unusual motifs like dancing frogs on an old metal button can bring in $150-200 as well.

You won't run across these types of buttons often, but it is worth becoming familiar with the high end examples so you will know what to look for among all those virtually worthless shirt buttons you may have to dig through to find them.

Where Can You Find Old Buttons?

A side benefit of button collecting comes with being able to find them everywhere. From garage sales to flea markets and textile shows, buttons abound. Sometimes they are neatly organized, other times they are in a heap big enough to dig through for hours. That is part of the fun of collecting.

Often thrift stores will end up with vintage garments and uniforms holding great buttons. As a matter of integrity, it's best to only pilfer buttons from garments with little or no life left in them. A complete garment will offer more history than just the buttons alone, so keeping them together as long as possible always makes sense when considering preservation.

It's nice, however, when you do find a worse for wear garment that offers a complete set of matched buttons. Sometimes this allows collectors to add one interesting button to their own collection and share the others through trading or selling.

You can also visit button collecting shows and meet others interested in the hobby in the process of adding to your collection. These are usually put on by button collecting societies and clubs so they will feature some of the best and most interesting buttons available on the secondary market.

 

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