The Goodyear blimp was a common sight in Southern California where I grew up. I remember the distinctive whirring noise it made. We would rush outside, point to the sky, and say, "There's our blimp!" You see, my grandmother worked for a subsidiary of Goodyear Rubber Co. and we got to see a lot of the famous flying machine. Is it any wonder that I feel a close family tie to Goodyear rubber buttons?
In the early 1830s, America was introduced to products made from a new waterproof gum from Brazil, and factories manufacturing rubber items sprang up to meet the demand. However, the public's love affair with rubber products ended almost overnight when it was discovered that early rubber was unstable and messy. Not one of the young rubber companies survived beyond five years and investors lost millions. Rubber, everyone agreed, was finished in America.
Even so, an inventor by the name of Charles Goodyear made it a personal crusade to find a solution to the rubber dilemma. In 1839, after years of hardship, he found a way to keep gum rubber from melting in the heat of summer and becoming rock-hard in the cold of winter. His process, called "vulcanization" after the Roman god of fire, refers to the hardening of rubber by adding sulfur to gum rubber and then heating it. Charles was dedicated to his invention and envisioned hundreds of products that could be made from rubber.
Buttons were among the products that Goodyear produced with rubber. These buttons are easy to overlook when rummaging through a button stash, as the majority are black and minimally decorated. The fun lies in finding the "back marks" on Goodyear buttons. Charles had to fight many competitors who threatened to steal his invention, and thus the patent dates of 1849-1851, in some form, are included on the backs of all rubber buttons manufactured under the Goodyear patent. In addition, the Goodyear name and the name of the manufacturing company will also be found together. The Novelty Rubber Co. (N.R. Co.) and India Rubber Comb Co. (I.R.C.Co.) were the two main manufacturers of Goodyear rubber buttons. Other back marks can be found, assumed to represent the American Rubber Co. (A.R. Co.) and the Dickinson Hard Rubber Co. (D.H.R. Co.).
Rubber buttons come in 11 shapes, 16 sizes -- ¼ in. (6 mm) to ¾ in. (1.9 cm) -- seven unusual colors, and more than 600 patterns. Rubber buttons were made for advertising, political use, Army and Navy uniforms, and clothing. With so many types of rubber buttons, a collector could spend a lifetime searching for rare and elusive specimens. Prices can range from 25 cents for common buttons to several hundred dollars for an especially rare button.
Charles Goodyear dedicated his life's work to making rubber a household material. As is true of many artists and inventors, he and his family suffered for his passion, but he was eventually successful in making rubber a usable substance. Where would we be today without items made with his process -- tires, wetsuits, and life rafts, for example? Rubber buttons may have fallen out of vogue with button manufacturers and fashion designers, but collectors will always find a special place in their hearts for these fun little pieces of history. Jill is the owner of Jillions of Buttons and author of
Warman's Buttons Field Guide and
Busy with Buttons: Save, Stitch, Create and Share, as well as numerous button-related articles. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her Web site at jillionsofbuttons.com.