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.