To buy or not to buy
Guidelines to button condition
|Have you ever returned from a shopping trip with button treasures, only to find that you had overlooked a flaw in a button that should have given you pause? The hunt for buttons is exciting and you can easily become enamored of a button while failing to examine it carefully before purchasing it. Here are some basic guidelines to help you in your quest for the best buttons.|
Look at the back first
Figure 1: Japanned back
I learned from my button mentor, and she from hers, that one always looks first at the back of the button in order to unlock its secrets. For a new collector, all the excitement is found on the front of the button — the design, the detail, the color! But if one looks at the back first, the front will be seen in context. Use a good-quality magnifying glass (10x) with a light to catch the finest details.
Backs may be rusty, scratched, and may have paint missing. Some rust can be removed, but it can take a lot of time and work to restore a completely rusted-over button and you can never be sure of the finished product.
Japanned (black painted) backs should have an even, shiny black color over the entire back of the button. Buttons were japanned to prevent the iron backs from rusting (figure 1).
Shanks may be bent or squashed. Most collectors do not try to straighten shanks for fear of weakening the shank or breaking it off altogether.
The shank can also be inappropriate for the button, indicating that it has been repaired, replaced, or added to a non-button. Repaired buttons are acceptable in competition, but the repair should be well done and should be in keeping with the button and the time it was originally produced. Obvious repurposing — turning buckle parts or hatpins into buttons — diminishes the value and collectibility of the piece.
Backmarks should be clear and easy to read. Backmarks include
metal content, symbols, company names and dates, and give clues to the
material of the button and the time produced.
Figure 2: Pick marks in horn
Pick marks and mold marks are clues to the material of the button. Pick
marks are from the button being "picked" out of the mold, and are most
often seen on pressed horn buttons (figure 2). The pick marks have been lightly chalked so the marks are visible in the picture. Mold marks are most often found on synthetic polymer (plastic) buttons, and on glass buttons.
Look at the front
Figure 3: A quality button
Detail: A good-quality button exhibits fine detail and craftsmanship. Additionally, higher-quality buttons cost more originally and had a better chance of being worn on clothing less often and treated gently. Look for crisp faces on people, complex backgrounds, and borders with unusual intricacies. See figure 3 for an example of crisp and intricate detail.
Finish: Although a rough-looking button can often be brought back to life by careful cleaning and polishing, some lesser-quality buttons have thinner finishes and therefore are more prone to marring or loss of the finish altogether. Some button finishes can be restored by the use of polish or metal cleaner. Figure 4 provides a before and after picture of a button covered with rust that was successfully cleaned.
Figure 4: Steel button shown before and after cleaning
Glass buttons should have a very smooth finish with no chips or flakes on the front of the button. See figure 5 for a glass button with an unacceptable chip.
Figure 5: Damaged black glass button
Color: The colored surface of the button should not be marred by flaws or discolored spots. Translucent synthetic polymers (plastics) and celluloid buttons should not exhibit crystallized areas that indicate deterioration. The original tint should be even and pristine with no wear on the high spots of the button.
Paint or luster: Painted buttons are harder to find in perfect condition, and are also more difficult to clean and polish without disturbing the paint. The finish should therefore be intact and fresh looking. I remember two painted glass buttons that I plopped into a small bowl of water to clean, only to remove them and find the paint completely gone! I have since learned that very few buttons should be washed.
Some paint was intentionally removed in years past. Examples are lacy glass buttons that have layers of colored paint, reflective paint, and black paint covering the reverse of the button. The purpose of the black paint was to give the lacy glass its mysterious depth of reflected colors. Collectors from an earlier period, thinking these buttons to be Sandwich glass, removed the black paint. Some restorers and collectors have repainted them, although these particular buttons are valuable even when the original paint is somewhat flawed.
Backgrounds: The background on a button should be shiny, if meant to be reflective, and should be tight if made from woven plant material, hair, or a textile such as thread. Wood backgrounds should be solid, uncracked and unblemished.Cooper’s
disease: The green patina/rust that often
afflicts metal buttons is known
as Cooper's disease. A bit of the green substance can be removed by putting
a dab of ketchup on the green spot and letting it sit for 15 minutes before
gently wiping it away. A button seriously afflicted with Cooper’s disease
may never recover and should be discarded lest it infect your other buttons.
Never store plastics and metals together as the gases from synthetic polymers
and celluloid will disastrously affect the metals.
Regardless of the condition in which you find a button, most
buttons can be improved by gentle cleaning techniques. See an excellent list of
these techniques at ncbuttonsociety.com/cleaninginfo/html. On the same page,
click on “Education” on the left to access the NBS Educational Booklet for
This article was originally published in the NCSBS
2010. Mary Pat Whaley is president of the Central North Carolina Button Club
and is a member of the North Carolina State Button Society and the National
Button Society. She has a special fondness for Paris back
buttons. Mary Pat is a second-generation button collector and is hopeful
that she is raising a third-generation button collector. She can be
reached at email@example.com.