Yesterday was National Button Day, so here are some beans for you to brew while you unbutton your sweater and enjoy this very delightful sunny day.
1. What is a button? I like to think that it’s a conjunction—a small fastener and connector of various things. For the most part, it holds together two pieces of fabric as part of an article of clothing (think: cardigans, pants, jackets), but it’s much more versatile than that.
2. Buttons are usually made of plastic, but they can also be made of metal, wood, bone, or seashell. While we think of buttons primarily as clothes helpers, they can definitely function in so many other places, including various bags, specialty notebooks, and fabric-covered buttons.
3. From an archaeological perspective, buttons can be great sources of information. They can, for example, reveal the craftsmanship of people during a particular time; they can also identify materials present in a time period and practices of a society. What did people in Ancient Greece use buttons for? How were buttons in China made a few thousand years ago?
4. From an artist’s point of view, buttons are great sources of creativity and skill. They can be used to create crafts and sculptures, among other things. [Aside: I found them to be great OUTLETS of creativity in high school. We wore uniforms, which I didn’t mind at all, but I did find a loophole in our school rules that allowed me a tiny bit of rebellious creativity: there was nothing in our agendas (where the uniform rules were posted) about the buttons on our cardigans. Our shirts, kilts, pants, socks, and even undershirts had to be a particular colour, but there was nothing in the rulebook about buttons. I was very proud of my flower buttons, in case you were wondering.]
5. The very first use of buttons weren’t even as fasteners at all. Buttons were primarily decorations for clothing (specifically) and cloth (more generally). The holes on most buttons stem from them being used to secure the button in place on the fabric. The earliest button found from the Indus Valley Civilization (only about, oh, 5000 years ago) were made of shells and had a nice pearly colour/texture. Of course, even people at this time would have appreciated creativity, which is why many ancient buttons are found in various geometric shapes.
6. Later on, buttons were used as seals. The patterns on them, like this one and this one from a dig in Harappa Town (part of the Indus Valley Civilization), would have communicated an idea, identified a household, or recognized a family.
7. It’s only much, much later, in the 1100s, that buttons became used as fasteners of clothing. They eventually became prevalent as fashions moved towards more tightly fitted clothes.
8. As small and innocuous as buttons seem to be, you need only use your imagination to think about what MIGHT be hidden in them. Well-fashioned buttons (that is, purposefully designed, though not necessarily aesthetically appealing) would be very convenient to transport important items without having to declare them, which would definitely benefit anyone, from drug aficionados to military strategists, and regular folk in between.
9. There are three ways of designating buttons based on how they attach fabric to fabric. When you think of a button, what do you see? Yes, a piece of plastic with (usually) four holes in the middle through which thread is passed to sew the button to the fabric. These are called flat or sew-through buttons. Very creative, I know.
10. Shank buttons are the ones that have no holes on the front portion but have a small protruding piece on the back through which the thread can pass. These types can be made of metal but are also often found covered in the same material as the fabric they are joining. These are great because you have this itty bitty bit of canvas that you can use to help visually enhance whatever it is you’re fastening.
11. Stud buttons are very cute (hahaha), but they are also called pressure buttons, so be careful (hahaha again). They are made of metal and push through the fabric to be caught on the other side by a rivet. Because they become “at one” with the fabric, they are much more secure than the other two types. This means, too, that they are difficult to remove without damaging the fabric to which they are joined in holy craftsmanship. You’ve probably got these on your jeans. Go look.
12. There are so many other types of buttons, some of which are really beautiful. Mandarin buttons and Dorset buttons are two of my favourites. Slate has a great article on the history of the button that you might want to read; it has some awesome pictures, too. Did you know that George Washington was the first person to politicize buttons? In the 1770s, it was easy to determine a person’s political slant just by looking down at his pants. By the way, did you know there’s a National Button Society? Yup.
[From the mixed-up files of: “Harappa.com”, “Campaign Button”, “The Button: A Visual History of the World’s Sexiest Fastening”, and “National Button Society”.]