Lucite can be tinted to add color to the buttons
Decorations to the face of the button created a 3-D effect
Early Lucite buttons were clear plastic reverse carvings
Lucite buttons were often sold by the button at the price of a loaf of bread
Color can be added to the back of the button to enhance the design
The Lucite Story—Clear and Clever
Lucite, a trademark name for a type of acrylic resin called polymethyl methacrylate, was first discovered in 1931 by the DuPont Company. The British firm ICI introduced Perspex in 1932. In 1933 Rohm & Haas Co. of Philadelphia developed Plexiglas and had it in commercial production by 1936. Lucite is considered to have properties of both plastic and glass. When first invented, it was crystal clear with a 93% transparency rate and resistant to water and UV rays. It had low density and is stronger than previous plastics.
Lucite is a thermoplastic which means that heat and/or pressure applied to a solidified piece will soften again. A hot needle does penetrate and forms a tunnel-like shape when the needle is removed. The substance has a rubbery consistency when hot so that the testing site can be “rubbed out.”
The early acrylic/Lucite buttons were colorless and transparent. Many of these have carved backs. There is a tendency to call all clear colorless plastics Lucite, but there are other plastics such as acrylic, acetate, and polystyrene which have the same appearance. Lucite, however, does not yellow with age as other clear plastics can and is moisture resistant. Adding color is possible, and the button may be opaque, translucent, or transparent. Lucite can be drilled or carved and embedded with bits of foil or pearl tesserae. The most common types of shanks are inserted metal loop, sew-through, peg with flat top, and self-shank tunnel.
Lucite played a rather extensive role during WWII. Due to its durability, clarity, strength being more impact resistant (bullet resistant) and safer than glass; it was used in windshields, nose cones, gunner turrets and canopies for airplanes in addition to submarine periscopes. Acrylic buttons were actually made from material left over from the manufacture of bomber gun turrets.
After World War II, the button industry converted almost entirely to plastic. Lucite buttons were decorated and manufactured in more complex ways. Embellishments of metal inlays, fabric backgrounds, and other decorations enhance these buttons which may also be painted and tinted. The variety of colors, decoration, carvings, and combined plastics made originally simple clear buttons very complicated as they became more and more novel. In addition an embedment process in which two ingredients, an acrylic resin powder and a monomer--a crystal clear liquid, mixed together in specific proportions to form a thick liquid created a button with an encased object under a clear Lucite top that added more color and whimsy to the garment.
All Lucite buttons are imitating glass, so they are highly polished to bring out the luster and high gloss of the acrylic not previously seen during production. Nothing says more “mid-century” than the carved, decorated, and tinted buttons made of Lucite.
Howells, Jocelyn, Joan MacFarlane and Nikki Deal. NBS Section 9-A Synthetic Polymers Handbook.
Howells, Jocelyn. It’s Not Just Lucite!
Howells, Jocelyn. Button Materials A-Z: Identification Guide
The Lucite Story. Century Manufacturing, Inc. About the Author
Dawn Carstensen, born in Erie, PA, relocated with her husband and two dogs to Ellicott City, MD, thirteen years ago. She has been a collector of antiques for over 40 years. Her interest peaked at an early age when she went on buying trips with her aunt and uncle who managed an antique mall near Los Angeles when they would travel east during the summer. Dawn and her husband collect antique advertising and postcards. Her interest and love of antique buttons grew when she joined the Black-Eyed Susan Button Club of MD. She is also a member of the National Button Society.