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A History of Bohemian glass buttons

Intermixed glass
Almost all glass buttons are handmade to a large degree. Very small and plain glass buttons can be molded on automatic machines similar to commercial bead-making machines, but nearly all other glass buttons require a significant amount of handwork. Glass button craftsmen typically work at individual stations furnished with a small furnace, a quantity of glass canes, and scissor-like button molds in which one button at a time is hand-pressed from glass drawn from a semi-molten glass cane.

North Bohemia has been a European glass-manufacturing center since the 13th century. The area became part of Czechoslovakia after World War I and is now part of the Czech Republic. The vast majority of glass buttons made in the 20th century owe their existence to the craftsmen of this area, and their output can be divided into periods defined by fashion demands and the development of new types of glasswork to meet those demands. Politics also enter into their history, as the aftermath of the two World Wars greatly affected the region. The production timeline of 20th-century glass buttons in central Europe parallels the development and demise of the Cold War.
Pre-WWII pictorials
Pre-WWII painted glass
1918 (end of World War I) to 1939 (start of World War II)
Popular styles include florals and other pictorials, cut crystal, and "realistics" -- pictorial buttons shaped like the objects they depict. Art Deco styles appear. Glass colors tend to be the basics: black, white, colorless crystal, opaque, and transparent colors. Intermixed glass, in which more than one color is visible and stripes, spatters, or marbling appear on the surface of a button, is popular. Painted decoration and fired-on gold and silver lusters become widespread. Most button-making enterprises are German-owned and are based in the north Bohemia area of Czechoslovakia, and will remain there until the end of World War II. The worldwide depression of the 1930s slows manufacturing. In 1938, Germany occupies much of the area.
1940-1945 (World War II)
Manufacturers cut back on button production to concentrate on other wartime glass needs, such as faceted glass lenses for instrument lights. The few buttons made are generally uniform buttons, often exact copies of brass buttons, which are no longer made due to the increasing need for brass for ammunition.
1945
In a settling of scores at the end of the war, all Germans in Czechoslovakia are forced to leave and move to Germany, most with only 24 hours' notice and little more than what they can carry. Almost all button manufacturing equipment, including molds and glass stock, remains in Czechoslovakia.
Post WWII black glass with lusters
1946
Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia begins. Button craftsmen are forced to make their buttons for a few large state-directed factories. A single state-controlled export company markets Czech buttons to the world outside Czechoslovakia. This manufacturing and distribution scheme continues until 1988, when the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia ends communist and Soviet influence.
Modern Czech realistics
1947-1960s in Czechoslovakia
Buttons with modernistic or politically motivated designs appear, as do "fabulous 50s" designs. All kinds of finishes and embellishments are used on buttons, including gold and silver lusters, paint, and "salt" (tiny bits of glass fired to the surface of a button). Decals and metal embellishments are used. DIGS (designs in glass surface) become popular. Moonglow glass is developed and becomes the glass of choice for some button makers. Moonglow buttons have an opaque base under a colorless glass top, somewhat similar in appearance to a paperweight. Moonglow glass is even used for buttons that are nearly or completely covered with decoration. Intermixed glass remains popular. Use of black glass - plain, lustered, and painted - is widespread. Much of the Czech output is sold to Eastern Bloc countries such as Russia, as evidenced by carded buttons with Cyrillic (Russian alphabet) text.
1960s German moonglows
1947-1960s in Germany
Button making in Germany begins from scratch. Although equipment and canes were left behind in Czechoslovakia, the German glass craftsmen who were forced to leave Czechoslovakia brought their knowledge with them, and the tools of the craft are fairly easy to duplicate without a tremendous amount of capital. The first glass buttons made in Germany after World War II are DIGS (designs in glass surface) because the manufacturing process is relatively simple compared to other glass types. Manufacturing capabilities soon achieve pre-war levels. At the high point, more than 400 individual companies are making glass buttons in Germany. German designs tend to be more conservative and more "haute couture" than Czech designs. Black moonglows appear in the mid-1950s. Intermixed glass and painted and lustered moonglows are popular, as are plain, painted, and lustered black glass. However, as automatic sewing machines become the norm in the garment industry and automatic washing machines become common in homes, buttons made of plastic and metal begin to replace glass buttons, which are easily damaged by both types of machinery.
Aurora Borealis on opaque glass
1960s-1998
German and Czech designs converge under the influence of the global fashion industry. Czech manufacturing continues in a few large state-controlled concerns; German production continues in smaller family-owned companies, but the number of companies declines. Intensely colorful fired-on iridescent lusters, called "auroras" in the button trade, are popular. Moonglows and intermixed glass buttons are still made, but their decline continues as plastic and metal offer cheaper and more durable alternatives to glass.
1989-present
In the Czech Republic, the fall of communism causes the breakup of the state-directed factory and distribution system. Craftsmen once again set up small shops, using molds and equipment obtained from the breakup of the large state factories. Special orders of buttons are commissioned by Americans for the collector market; old molds are used and a few new designs are introduced. Most old-stock Czech buttons of collectible quality disappear from the market, either through sales to foreign bulk buyers or to collectors. In Germany, the rapid decline in the number of button manufacturers continues. Old German stock also disappears, primarily through bulk sales to the Middle East and Africa. The decline of both German and Czech production is driven by garment industry preference for metal and plastic buttons; the passing of the old guard of button makers; and environmental regulations that limit or ban the manufacture of certain chemicals needed for many types of glass and glass finishes, such as auroras and black moonglows.

Today, only a handful of Czech and German glass button makers practice the craft, selling their limited output to a small market of collectors and specialty retailers. Original mid-century button molds are still used; serviceable button molds turn up in factory basements and in antique stores. Buttons pressed from rediscovered molds can be indistinguishable from those pressed decades ago, but many of the newer buttons are made from glass types or decorated in styles not prevalent or available when the mold was first used.

The countless millions of vintage glass buttons produced in Germany and Czechoslovakia -- most of them made one at a time by hand -- offer a collecting opportunity that is virtually unique. Few decorative objects are as infinite in variety, as visually exciting, and as affordable as the beautiful glass buttons made in central Europe during the 20th century.

Jane Johnson is a life member of both the National Button Society and the California State Button Society. Her passionate interest is glass buttons, and many times in the last decade she has visited the button-making region of Bohemia in the Czech Republic and the town of Neugablonz in southern Bavaria. Jane and her husband, Myron, are proprietors of Antique & Modern Buttons. You can reach Jane at buttons@buttonfun.com, or visit her Web site, buttonfun.com.
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