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Compulsively collecting calico china buttons

calicofabricedit
Calico buttons on fabrics that date to the last half of the 19th century.

I came to button collecting in the late 1990s because of a few painted black buttons I admired on a 1930s blouse. I tracked down a nearby button club and was awestruck by the gorgeous, the glittery, the ancient, and the classic buttons I viewed. As a new collector amid scores of experts, I felt most comfortable focusing on a common button rather than an exotic one. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about the porcelain china calico buttons that mimic calico fabric. At the time, I had no idea how far this interest would ultimately take me.

I soon learned that the first mass-produced porcelain buttons were introduced in 1840 by Englishman Richard Prosser, who pressed dry porcelain powder into molds, one by one, and fired them in a large kiln. Production of the new china buttons began at the pottery Mintons Ltd. in England. A worker could make 25 buttons in one minute — an incredible improvement over the time required to shape each porcelain button by hand without a mold. Labor costs were low and it is estimated that a week’s production of 2,850,000 buttons would have cost a mere $200.

To make calico buttons, calico patterns were transferred to porcelain buttons from freshly inked paper laid on top of glazed buttons, which then made a second trip through the kiln. The paper burned away and the ink was fired onto the button.

The patterns on calico china buttons were not intended to match calico textiles, but to complement them. These brightly colored fabrics printed with repeat patterns of small floral or geometric shapes were the latest thing in the mid-1800s. Originally, calico fabrics had been imported from and named for Calicut, a port on the Malabar Coast of India. However, by the mid-1800s, calico fabrics were being milled in England, France, and the United States.

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Original card of calico buttons from the Bapterosses factory, France.

China buttons were humble and utilitarian but they were more colorful, certainly, than the small metal, pearl, and bone buttons commonly used on everyday clothing of the Victorian era. They became universal during the middle and late 1800s, closing men’s shirts as well as women’s blouses, dresses, and children’s clothing. “Chinas” sold for as little as 2 cents per dozen for undecorated styles, and 3 cents per dozen for decorated styles. The buttons were hand-sewn onto cards that could be cut to give the purchaser the number of buttons needed.


calicobodies
Collectors gave china button bodies appropriately homespun names that described their shape. Left to right: dish, inkwell, saucer, tire, and smooth top.
otherbodies
Rare button shapes include from left to right: shape 4 oval eye body, metal-rimmed button, calico in waistcoat or jewel setting, and calico on aspirin-shape body.
calicosizevaried
Smallest three-hole pink-dotted button measures 5/16 in., dwarfed by the 1 1/16-in. calico with green pattern beside it.
colorvariations
More unusual decorative treatments include from left to right: two-color calico pattern, luster over calico pattern, calico pattern over luster, dark body with white calico pattern.

The popularity of the product spawned factories in the United States, Germany, and France, and each manufacturer attempted to outdo the others in innovation and style. The Frenchman Jean-Felix Bapterosses aggressively dominated the industry. In 1844, he substantially increased production with a machine that formed 500 buttons at a time. His operation quickly outgrew a small factory in Paris, necessitating relocation to Briare, a small town to the south. Ever an innovator, Bapterosses developed lustered buttons and colored clay buttons. By 1849, his factory was producing 1,400,000 buttons per day. He employed 150 people in the factory and 400 women outside the factory to sew the buttons onto cards, which were printed on-site. More employees required more housing and support services: a hospital, church, garden, and schools. Soon, Bapterosses presided over a factory town.

The result of his enterprise was an infinite quantity of varying china buttons — the perfect challenge for the button collector with an eye to cataloguing and organization. One serious collector, Wilfred Morgan of Massachusetts, drew and catalogued 293 different calico patterns, publishing his drawings in two small handbooks in 1939 and 1940. Two other china enthusiasts, Beatrice and Lester Lorah, acquired Morgan’s drawings and his collection of calicos, and were ultimately responsible for publication of the 326 calico patterns  we still refer to for identification in Guidelines for Collecting China Buttons, published by the National Button Society in 1970. Contemporary fans of the calico china button have now documented patterns beyond the 326 previously recorded.

In addition to the numerous patterns, calico buttons can be found in different button body types and a wide range of sizes. They can also be found in at least eight different colors and in two-color combinations.


Collecting calico buttons remains an exciting challenge for me and many others. I attend button shows and visit with collectors wherever travel takes me. In 2001, I met with like-minded collectors at the National Button Society annual show in Denver, where we formed The China Exchange  for the purpose of sharing information and buttons. In September 2005, a group adventure took us to the Bapterosses factory museum in Briare for a look at buttons that we had never seen. Additional trips to Briare for the purpose of exploring the original discharge area behind the Bapterosses factory have led to exciting discoveries.

I am certain I will never find buttons in each pattern, but the search has been delightful!

Janet White is a button enthusiast who is both a collector and a crafter. She is a member of the National Button Society and the American West Coast community of local, state, and regional button clubs. She can be reached at janetwhite@me.com. You can read more about collecting china buttons at baublesandbuttons.com.


 

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