They say that if you want to learn something fast, throw yourself to wolves. Put yourself in a situation where you need to have already learned what you want to know. So, I did. I wanted to learn about vintage buttons, so I asked to help price them for our upcoming button sale.
Sharon and Emma were as sweet as can be about the whole thing, but when we got to it I was expecting a pre-game talk about the basics of vintage buttons. There was no talk. I was given the massive tin of white vintage buttons (the kind we have the most of) and a sharpie, and told to hop to.
It’s safe to say I fumbled a bit. Or a lot. But lucky for you, I consistently messed up by under pricing them. Look through our white section next weekend and you are sure to find a bunch of steals, because I had no idea something so small and simple could be so valuable. But along the way I learned, and Emma and Sharon were always kind enough to answer whatever silly questions I had. So, I figured I can pass on my meager knowledge from this crash course and share what I’ve learned about a few types of vintage buttons.
Some basics of identifying button materials-
Celluloid was the first plastic on the market, and it was used to make everything under the sun. Toys, brushes, jewelry, and of course, buttons. It’s a very light material, and you can see right through most pure celluloid objects if you hold them to the light.
But the celluloid buttons that we tend to see have a metal backing, so that trick won’t work. What we look for is the thin wrapping of the plastic around a metal base. The raised edge is our go-to tell-tale sign.
Fun fact: Anne Frank had a beloved celluloid pen that was destroyed in an accidental fire. She even wrote an ode to it after it burned. Read it here.
This is an incredibly durable material found in nature. Tagua nuts are extremely hard nuts that can be carved into shapes, and they closely resemble ivory. As a result it became a valued resource both as a knock-off of ivory, and in its own right as something that lasts.
Identifying tagua can be tricky, as it naturally resembles ivory, plastic, and wood. There are a couple of ways to be more confident about your identification though.
First, many tagua buttons have a trademark lighter inside and darker outside, which is carved away into a (typically) elliptical design.
Secondly, the shank on the back tends to have been drilled in a similarly noticeable light/dark pattern.
Besides those two tricks, you just need a familiarity with tagua, as well as all the things it can resemble, so that you can know the feel of them. Many of our vintage tagua buttons feature neither of the two cues I mentioned, so a novice like me would (and did) chalk it up to plastic or wood.
Glass comes in all kinds of colors and textures, which can mess a beginner up very easily. One might expect all glass to have a nice shiny surface, but unfortunately it isn’t so. (Though it does tend to have dull gloss at the very least.)
Thankfully, glass is still pretty easy to distinguish. It has a noticeable weight to it, and if you tap it against another glass surface, it makes a distinct “tink” noise. Other materials will make much duller sound when tapped against a glass surface.
For the most part, leather looks like leather. If you’ve seen it in any other context, you can know when it’s on a button. But sometimes it’s made to be extremely compact and hard, making it look just like plastic.
And there are plenty of plastic vintage buttons that look like leather that are just waiting to trip you up. What’s helpful with these buttons it to look at the back. If it has a metal shank drilled or pushed into the back, it’s probably leather, or at the very least not plastic. If it has a plastic shank (especially if that plastic part is the same piece as the back and doesn’t have a seam) you’re likely dealing with a good imitation of leather.
So, that’s what I’ve learned. I know many of our readers and followers are far more knowledgeable on the subject than I am. If that’s you, please leave your tips and tricks in comments! We’d love to hear them.
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