Glass buttons first appeared in the 1500s but did not become popular until the mid-1800s, entering their heyday after the death of England's Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria, in deep mourning for her husband, wore nothing but black, including black buttons, until she died in 1903.
Fashion of the late 1800s dictated black buttons as the rule for those who wished to follow Victoria's lead. Queen Victoria's black buttons were made of carved Whitby jet, a gem material closely related to coal and of similar organic origin. Jet buttons were very expensive, but buttons made of black glass became a popular, much less expensive substitute for jet.
Often you will see black glass buttons referred to as jet, when, in fact, they are only jet black in color - and even that is not exactly as it seems. When held against a strong light, a black glass button may actually be a very dark blue-green, dark transparent brown, smoky opaque, or amethyst. Many different formulas were used to achieve the black-color effect.
Manufacturing methods varied
Black glass buttons were made in many different shapes and sizes and countless designs. You can find many molded black glass picture buttons, especially in smaller sizes. The images on these buttons reflect popular subjects of the time: characters from plays or operas, mythological figures, animal and plant life, and many other pictorials. Another popular design category in Victorian black glass is imitation fabric.
Faceted black glass is common and exhibits intriguing patterns and shapes, similar in many ways to quilting patterns. For more elegance, black glass buttons were finished with fired-on iridescent, silver or gold lusters. You can also find many black glass buttons with painted and enameled pictures and designs.
Black glass buttons were made using several manufacturing techniques. Most were manufactured from glass rods pressed into molds that were often quite intricate. Released from the molds, the buttons were often hand-finished to eliminate rough edges.
Tips for dating buttons
Dating these buttons can seem somewhat tricky at first, but age differences quickly become apparent. The buttons of the early Victorian period are usually heavier than those of the late 1800s or modern examples. You can also learn to date black glass buttons according to the type of shank and the designs and finishes on the fronts of the buttons.
Judging by the available quantities and types of these lovely old buttons, it seems that black glass buttons were more commonly used and carefully saved than most other button types. Their availability, beauty, and variety make them fascinating to collect.
This article was provided by the National Button Society, nationalbuttonsociety.org. Kathleen Vocelle is a lifetime member of the National Button Society, for which she served as the Junior Division chairperson for five years. She is the author of Introduction to Button Collecting and can be contacted at email@example.com.