Buttons have been made of acrylic from the 1940s to the present, although other plastics have dominated since about 1960. Because acrylic was so popular for buttons in the 1950s, there are really wonderful '50s-style designs to be found in these buttons. There are many variations in the use of acrylic in buttons that go way beyond the traditionally held view that acrylic is only clear and/or colorless. It is not, and it is not just Lucite!
Acrylic is a thermoplastic, meaning it can be softened or melted after it has been hardened. Acrylic buttons can be machined and carved from preformed cast acrylic sheets, rods, tubes, or molded or formed from extruded strips. Acrylic buttons can be colorless or made in a range of translucent, transparent, and opaque colors. Many buttons were made of a lovely pearlescent/luminescent form of acrylic. Jewel-like acrylic cabochons are found mounted in metal buttons, such as the popular Jelly Belly buttons.
The motifs of these buttons run the gamut from naturalistic carved and back-painted examples such as the mallard duck shown here, to Modernist designs. Some buttons are delicate with floral metal rims; others are boldly graphic. Asian persons, nudes, and British royalty are captured portrait style. Inlaid materials embellish many acrylic buttons: a fabric rose, a complete mollusk shell, a lustered black glass cabochon.
Home crafters used pellets
A rough granulated form of tiny acrylic pellets was made available for a short time during the 1950s to cottage industry and home crafters. I refer to this form as acrylic shot. The surface of the buttons is rough and slightly resembles salt dough, which led collectors in the past to incorrectly identify them as dough buttons. The backs of acrylic- shot buttons have the same rough "salt dough" appearance as the fronts.
These buttons are also commonly misidentified as plaster, molded wood, and composition. A producer would fill a mold with the acrylic shot, harden the material with heat, remove it from the mold, and paint the finished product. Under the paint, the material is light gray-white.
Every button of this type that I've seen has an inserted metal loop shank. Some of the designs show up frequently, indicating that at least some were produced in fairly large quantities. These buttons are chunky and often feature quaint designs, such as an old shoe.
Acrylic is a type of plastic
Acrylic is the general term for any plastic material made of acrylic acid or its derivatives. Some investigation into derivatives of acrylic acid had been made prior to 1900, but not on a commercial basis. By 1928, however, acrylics were under development by several competing laboratories.
In 1933, Rohm & Haas Co. of Philadelphia developed Plexiglass and had it in commercial production by 1936. The British firm ICI introduced Perspex® in 1932 and succeeded because of its more efficient production process.
DuPont chemists developed their acrylic in 1931 and began commercial production in 1936 under the name Lucite. Lucite never generated substantial earnings for DuPont, and the company sold its acrylic resin operations in 1993, but button collectors often use the Lucite name as a generic term for acrylic buttons.
In the final year of World War II, just three months before VE Day, LIFE magazine featured a story about the marketing of Plexiglass, "one of the plastic substances which designers love to put in their glittering postwar plans." In the eyes of its inventors, Plexiglass was slated to be the postwar world's glamour plastic, the contemporary equivalent of old-world crystal. I'm not sure when the first buttons were made of acrylic but logic says it would have been after World War II ended, because it was a material critical to the war effort.
There's more to plastic
Note that not all transparent plastic buttons are acrylic. Among other plastics that were or are commonly used in transparent forms are celluloid, cellulose acetate, polystyrene, polyester, Bakelite, and, most recently, polycarbonate.
A hot needle test will tunnel into Lucite and result in a pointed tunnel in the shape of the needle if you leave it in too long. The fruity odor of the melted acrylic is similar to that of nail polish remover or acetone. Don't try to test transparent buttons unless you really need to know for sure and you can hide your test mark.
The big universe of buttons includes acrylic buttons from many different sources - it is not just Lucite!
This article was provided by the National Button Society, nationalbuttonsociety.org. Jocelyn Howells has held key positions in the National Button Society and the Oregon State Button Society from 1989 to the present. She is a professional antique postcard dealer and the author of Plastic Buttons: How to Identify Using All Six Senses (now out of print) and Button Materials A-Z: Identification Guide. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; her Web site is mysite.verizon.net/buttonjoss.