A lot about buttons – with thanks to Wikipedia and other on-line sources.
In modern clothing and fashion design, a button is a small fastener, most commonly made of plastic, but also frequently of seashell, which secures two pieces of fabric together. In archaeology, a button can be a significant artefact. In the applied arts and in craft, a button can be an example of folk art, studio craft, or even a miniature work of art.
Buttons are most often attached to articles of clothing but can also be used on containers such as wallets and bags. However, buttons may be sewn onto garments and similar items exclusively for purposes of ornamentation. Buttons serving as fasteners work by slipping through a fabric or thread loop, or by sliding through a buttonhole.
The word button comes from the French word 'bouton' meaning a knob, bud or pimple.
Ian McNeil (1990) holds that: "The button, in fact, was originally used more as an ornament than as a fastening, the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. It is made of a curved shell and [is] about 5000 years old."
The earliest functional buttons were found in the tombs of conquering Hungarian tribes from the late 9th century. Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century. They soon became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.
King Francis I of France who reigned from 1515 to 1547 once wore 13,600 gold buttons on a court costume. That seems a bit OTT to me!
Chinese coats usually had five buttons on the front to represent the five principal virtues recommended by Confucius – Humanity, Justice, Order, Prudence and Rectitude. Certain Chinese officials in the days of the Empire wore buttons on their hats to show their rank. The men of highest rank wore ruby buttons. Then came buttons of coral, sapphire, lapis lazuli, crystal and finally other materials.
The British Army in France during World War I is said to have used 367 different kinds of buttons. Buttons were considered so important to front line troops that any kind of a button could be requisitioned and delivered within eight hours. The British Army spent £250,000 per year just for the paste used to polish brass buttons.
During the second half of the eighteenth century, manufacturers of metal buttons began to ‘brand’ their products by marking the backs with their names and often their addresses. These ‘backmarks’ can provide useful information for dating the buttons, as details of the various companies, and when they were operating, can be found in contemporary trade directories and other documentary sources. The marking is invariably produced by die stamping, which is an inherent part of the manufacturing process, and backmarks produced in this way continue to be used to the present day.
Some museums and art galleries hold culturally, historically, politically, and/or artistically significant buttons in their collections. The Victoria & Albert Museum has many buttons, particularly in its jewellery collection, as does the Smithsonian Institution.
Hammond Turner & Sons, a button-making company in Birmingham, hosts an online museum with an image gallery and historical button-related articles, including an 1852 article on button-making by Charles Dickens. In the USA, large button collections are on public display at The Waterbury Button Museum of Waterbury, Connecticut, the Keep Homestead Museum of Monson, Massachusetts, which also hosts an extensive online button archive and in Gurnee, Illinois at The Button Room.
And the fact about buttons that I found most fascinating - why men's and women's clothes are buttoned on opposite sides. Apparently it is because in high society, men generally dressed themselves whereas women were dressed by their maids. Reversing the buttons on women's clothes made the job faster and easier.