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Victorian picture buttons

Marcel from Les Huguenots, an opera by Meyerbeer, popular in the 1890s
Man in the moon
Children playing catch
Under the sea
Birds sheltered by umbrella
Taken from a well-known painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard called La Lettre. Perhaps Madame de Pompadour
Rumpelstiltskin from Grimm's fairy tale
Pictures of every imaginable subject have traditionally appeared on buttons made of many materials. Metal picture buttons for women's and children's clothing reached the height of popularity during the Victorian age, around 1880, and retained their popularity right through the Edwardian era.

Unlike individually made buttons of the 18th and early 19th century, most Victorian picture buttons were mass-produced. Sometimes pictorial designs were cast or die-struck, producing a thick, heavy button. More often, images were stamped onto a thin metal sheet that became the face of a two-part button. Brass was the most popular face metal, although white metals and other alloys were used. The buttons range in diameter from about one-half inch to more than three inches.

The two-part construction of most picture buttons means that often the same design appears in different settings. Beautifully crafted borders distinguish some examples. The artistry of a well-designed border, like the frame around a wonderful painting, calls attention to and enhances the picture.

The enormous number of subjects shown on picture buttons reflects, in part, the new popular awareness of art and literature in the late 19th century. New plays, operas, novels, poems, and paintings challenged the die-makers to create new button designs. People showed their approval for a new work of art by wearing buttons derived from it on a shirtwaist, coat, or cloak.

Themes from storybooks and nursery rhymes were very popular and highlighted the late Victorian devotion to the child. Western attitudes toward childhood began to change in the mid-18th century, and by the middle years of the Victorian era, childhood was regarded as a time of life distinct from adulthood. Designs that illustrate a drama, fable, or nursery rhyme are called story buttons and are named for the work depicted. The Rumpelstiltskin button shown here is an example of a story button. Childhood activities and the connection between children and nature come to life in picture buttons.

Items held in popular esteem explain much of the subject matter found on these buttons. The Victorian fascination with natural history accounts for the vast number of buttons featuring birds, insects, and other animals, as well as flowers and other plant life. Designers broadened their focus to include every mode of transportation of the period. Inanimate daily objects ranging from buckles to umbrellas are featured on picture buttons. Every conceivable area of interest to a collector is represented: astronomy, mythology, Asia, religious subjects, music, architecture, pastimes and sports, heads, figures, cupids and fairies, and on and on. The list of picture button categories is virtually endless.

Some collectors specialize in well-preserved examples of picture buttons with their original tints. Button manufacturers offered a variety of dyed brass buttons in finishes to match the deep shades of the era's fabrics. Reds and purples are typical; blue and green tints are scarcer. It is relatively difficult to find examples in their original tints because the colors were easily removed with metal polishing agents.

Collecting picture buttons represents a wonderful journey through the world of Victorian art appreciation. Studying them is like being in history class, with all the details in a tangible form that you can hold in the palm of your hand.

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 reached at kayvo@webtv.net.
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