Many years ago when I was attending my first button meeting,
I remember overhearing a reverent discussion about a button called a “tingue”. I took a peek at the button which was
inspiring this awe and understood immediately. When you look at a tingue, you can sense right away that it
is special. There is a lot going
on both visually and artistically.
They are not fussy buttons but instead display a refined, sophisticated,
and rich aesthetic. In person,
tingues are alive with movement generated from their complicated
construction. They seem magica,l
and it’s easy to see how they have become such an object of button collector’s
In 1883 Senator John H. Tingue thought he was offering $50
to three young ladies under age 20 who
would collect a string of 2500 buttons. A misworded version of the offer was
picked up and run in the newspapers.
He ended up paying 33 girls for buttons. This bungled offer coupled with his generous donation to the
state of Connecticut created a “time capsule” of buttons collected by teenage
girls from relatives, neighbors, and friends in New England. Many years later Edith Fuoss visited
this collection and was astonished to find several of a particularly scarce
type among the 90,000 buttons. In a button book she published in 1952, she
referred to them as “tingues” in the senator’s honor, and the name has stuck.
The manufacture of tingues was a many step process, all done
by hand and requiring much skill.
The base and top of the button are made separately. The top portion which is always clear
has a very thin layer of contrasting colored glass overlaid on its top. This is often referred to as flashing. On the
underside of this top, gold foil is affixed with hide glue. The base and top are then attached with
what is probably shellac being used as the adhesive. It is only at this point that the whole thing is taken to
the grinding wheel for hand faceting.
Through this faceting the distinctive graduation of geometric shapes of
red flashing over gold foil over the base color takes place.
So we know how
tingues were made and that they were in button boxes in New England by 1883,
but we really don’t know for sure where they were made. A good
guess would be Bohemia which at that time had a vibrant cottage industry in
handmade glass buttons. We also
know they were proficient in the same techniques needed--flashing, laminating,
and hand faceting. However, until
proof is found, it will have to remain a guess.
At any button show you’ll be able to find the most
common tingues, which are squat and round with either a ruby or black glass
base. But any collector knows that
it is the rarities that get our juices flowing. Collecting tingues is slow. For me, watching my collection
grow through the years has made me appreciate how creative those long ago
craftsmen really were. The pictures
of the buttons show every variation in color, shape, faceting, and back type I
could find or borrow since I saw my first tingue so long ago.
About the Author:
Becky Lyon has been collecting buttons since 1989. She has served on the board of
directors of the National Button Society as well as holding many leadership
positions through the years with the Minnesota State Button Club. Almost immediately her focus was
collecting and finding out everything she could about 19th century
glass buttons. Her articles on
glass buttons have appeared in the National Button Bulletin. Becky lives in Minneapolis with her