RAM blog

Buttons! Small but Mighty

by Nancy Nickolson, Family Programs Coordinator, and Lucie Heins, Assistant Curator of Western Canadian History

July 13, 2020

Buttons have a very long history. For as long as there has been clothing, it would seem that buttons were used to hold two pieces of fabric or fur together. Through time, people have used different materials to create new versions of this very simple, but noble object. Now buttons play a multitude of roles, from practical to lavish adornment.

How to: Sew a button

Did one of the buttons on your favourite vest come off? Let this cute bear show you how to fix it!

Difficulty: Easy

Time: 2 minutes

What you'll need:

  • Button
  • Sewing needle
  • Thread
  • Piece of clothing to sew button onto



In the Collection

This image shows 1/3 of a circular stone button. One of the button holes is visible, as well as the ridge on the edge of the button.

Button fragment
Stone, 1874-1885

A prehistoric button! RAM’s Archeologists believe this to be a piece of a very old button, possibly made of limestone. 

It was excavated in 2016-2017 at the original Fort Macleod, which was established as a North-West Mounted Police site between 1874-1885.


This image shows a circular metal button that looks quite worn with a very matte surface. The button has 4 button holes, with a wide, flat edge all the way around.

Pant Button
Metal, 1874-1885

Based on its size and shape, this metal button likely attached suspenders to a pair of tailored pants. 

Archeologists discovered this button at the original Fort Macleod site.


This image shows a circular button made of horn. It is mostly a deep yellow colour, with some dark brown and black spots. It is a fairly simple, flat button, with 4 holes in the middle.

Horn, Late 1800’s

In 13th century Paris, buttonmakers were formed into guilds, each specializing in the material they were trained to use such as metal, ivory, horn and bone. 

By the 14th century, guild-made buttons were part of the European economy.


This image shows a circular metal button. The button is black with a shiny, silver coloured design on top. The design is circular, made up of 3 flowers and leaves. The outer edge of the button features a scalloped line all the way around.

Decorative Military Button
Metal, Late 1800s

In the 16th century, copper, brass, iron, pewter and tin were used to begin making decorative military buttons. 


This image shows close up view of a circular brass button fastened on a blue-grey garment. The button appears to have an ornate design.This image shows the back of the brass button from the last image. Through the back of the button loop is a small piece of bent metal, similar in shape to a bobby pin. This pin appears to hold the button in place.

Removable Button with shank
Metal, 1940’s

Sometimes it is handy to be able to take your buttons off of your clothes, either to change the look or for cleaning.  One set of buttons was often used to fasten different garments or uniforms especially if they were made of metal. Removing the buttons before washing prevented rusting. 

The invention of the button shank, a loop on the back side of the button, made that happen! The shank is pushed through a hole of the garment and secured with a metal strip threaded through the back.

Here is an example of a removable button commonly used on nursing uniforms up until the 1940s.


This image shows a circular white button with a brass edgeThis image shows the back of the button from the last image. The back of the button is all brass. Instead of a loop, the back of the button has a “Y” shaped slot that allows the user to slide them on and off.
Changeable “Slide” Button
Brass & white glass, 1874-1885

The invention of shanks also allowed for the changing of button styles giving the same garment a different look. 

The back of this button is made so that the button face can slide on and off a shank. 

This button was excavated at the Fort Macleod site and dates to 1874-1885.


This image shows a circular metal button. The button is black, with raised, ornate designs of lilies and plants. The large, central lily in the design is white with green accents on the inner petals with a yellow center.

Imported Oriental Button
Metal, 1904-1919

Because most settlers in Alberta lived practical lives, simple functional buttons were needed.

Later, ornate buttons like this one were used to adorn clothing, initially being imported from overseas. In order to reduce imports, jewelers, silversmiths, and clockmakers began making metal buttons.


This image shows a circular button. It is all black, with an ornate pinwheel design made with black thread needlework.

Black Needlework Button
Wound thread base and overlaid with a needlework design, mid-1800s

During the 17th century, fabric, crocheted or wound buttons were fashionable. These were used mostly as decorative elements for a garment.


This image shows a circular button. It appears shiny. The button has a black background with one large, deep red, horizontal stripe
Fabric Button
wood covered with silk, early 1900s

Fabric buttons became desirable because they could be made to match the rest of the garment.

It is interesting to note that in France during the 17th century, fabric buttons could only be made with silk in order to protect the silk industry. 

In England, however, fabric buttons were prohibited. Buttons had to be made from metal in order to protect this industry.   


This image shows a circular button. The button is very simple, with 4 holes in the middle and a rounded ridge around the edge. The button is deep blue-grey colour and appears shiny.

Dyed Iridescent Blue Button
Shell, late 1800s

Buttons were very popular during the 18th century, especially for men. Their clothing changed to accommodate more buttons. Double-breasted vests are an example of the need for additional buttons. New materials such as porcelain, shell and glass begin to appear. 


This image shows a circular white button. The button, made of shell, is quite shiny. It has 2 holes in the middle, with an eye-shaped indentation around the holes. The button also has a indented ridge on the edge of the button and around the button holes.
“Fish-eye” Button
Mother of Pearl shell, late 1800s

This shimmery button has an oval depression in the middle, a defining characteristic of a “fish-eye” design.


This image shows a cluster of 10 buttons, tied together with string. The buttons are a gold colour, with colourful designs. On the front, each button has a blue background, with a central triangular design that is white with a pink flower with 3 green leaves.

Painted Buttons
Metal with enamel, late 1800s - early 1900s

By the mid-19th century, men’s garments were less flamboyant. The Paris haute couture became influential for women’s fashions and buttons became the women’s domain. These buttons are an example made specifically for women’s garments.


This image shows a white circular button with a butterfly design. There are 2 butterflies, one large that is flying sideways and a small one that is shown from above, with both wings opened. The butterflies are both black with ornate gold lines. There are also hints of red, purple and blue on the butterflies. The button also has a small gold coloured edge around the button.

Japanese Satsuma Button
Crackle glazed porcelain, enameled inlay with mother-of-pearl and Japanese lacquer, c. 1900s

In 1854, the Japanese ports were open for trade, introducing satsuma buttons like this one. 


This image shows a circular black button. Although it appears to look like an ornate needlework button, this button is made of glass. The design of the button features intersecting loop shapes radiating from the middle of the button.

Black Button
Glass, 1870-1910

After Queen Victoria became a widow in 1861, black mourning clothing and jewelry became very popular. 

This glass button was made to imitate an ornate fabric button.


This image shows a simple, circular, shiny, black button. The button has a slight dome shape, and has 4 holes in the middle. On the surface of the button reads “GOODYEAR IRCCo 1851”.

Goodyear Button 
Volcanized rubber, c. 1860s

In 1851, after many years experimenting with rubber, Charles Goodyear patented the process of making hard, volcanized rubber. Although his father was a button maker, Charles did not make buttons. 

However, anyone who manufactured rubber buttons had to include the 1851 patent date and the name Goodyear. In 1898, Frank Seiberling established the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. The company was named after Charles Goodyear.


This image shows a circular button. It has modeled stripes that are deep yellow and brown. The button has 4 holes on a flat centre, with a large curved edge.

Vegetable Ivory, 1870-1920

Vegetable ivory was made from corozo nuts. Although an economical substitute for ivory, the nuts were too small for making buttons larger than one inch across. 


This image show a circular button. Is has a flat edge that is deep purple. The centre of the button looks iridescent, with a mixture of different colours including pink, purple, blue, and yellow.

Early Plastic Button
Celluloid, 1900-1920

By the late 19th century, celluloid, the first plastic, was invented.  Unfortunately, celluloid was flammable so its popularity was short lived. 

Today, the majority of buttons manufactured are made from plastic and other synthetic materials.  

Behind the Scenes

This image shows RAM Family Program Coordinator, Nancy Nickolson, and a stuffed bear. The small, brown, stuffed bear is wearing a red vest and bow tie, and is standing on a white stage. A yellow desk light illuminates the white backdrop and floor. A short, phone-sized tripod stands in front of the set.

Nancy Nickolson, Family Program Coordinator, and Mr. Bear on the stop motion animation set (located in a spare bedroom) of “Sewing a Button”.

an image of a mammoth
i no fit :'(