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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antique Buttons From The 1880s

Author: Lillian Smith Albert And jane Ford Adams

( Article orginally From November 1962 )

"Metal picture buttons"- the term collectors apply to those with pictures embossed or impressed on sheet metal, ordinary brass, steel, etc.-were novel in the late 1860s. In the 1880s, they reached the peak of their popularity.

After the beloved Longfellow died in 1882, a commemorative button honored his memory. When Queen Victoria celebrated the fiftieth year of her reign in 1887, the official jubilee portrait, showing her in threequarter profile with small crown and widow's veil, was placed on buttons. The tremendous vogue which Kate Greenaway children enjoyed was reflected in button designs taken from her books. Plate 1 shows one of the most button-copied subjects, Pretty Patty, from her best seller Under the Window, published in 1879, and one of the finest, also rarest, from the Greenaway Almanack of 1883, Baby Sweethearts.

Included in Ehrich Brothers' Fall Catalogue, 1886, were picture buttons well known to collectors: Cupid at the Fountain (now a very plentiful button) ; Paul and Virginia; Fox and Stork fab-e. Cooper & Conrad's Shopping Guide for May 1885 speaks of "quite a [button] menagerie of animals running away back into heathen mythology" and of "heads of old Roman warriors" and "Oriental pictures."

An excellent account of the season's favorites comes from Demorest Magazine, May 1886: "Buttons of solid metal are raised - in; medallion style or are ornamented with devices of various sorts. [Others had composite construction with top piece turned over the back, or the two held together by- a; rim.] A gallant knight with his horse grazing near by picks a mandolin under his lady's window,- or-a- moon, brings into relief a ruin, a bridge and a stream, all perfectly portrayed in one or more colors. [This was achieved with colored lacquer.] Moonlight scenes appear to be the most highly favored. There are suits of armor, coats of mail, crossed spears, or a flag and battle-axes in relief on some of the new designs." The article goes on to say that "this class of goods" is made in various sizes but that ones "nearly, or quite. as large as individual butter plates" are preferred to small ones.

Black glass buttons must have been the bread-and-butter items of many in the trade during most of the Victorian Age. The 1880s were typical but important for us, this is the one decade from which we have dated back glass buttons with emphasis on pattern variety is made up entirelv of buttons backmarked "Pat'd Dec 28 1880."

Plate 3 shows polychrome enamel buttons with pictures copied from Watteau. High fashion items these; Harper's Bazar for August 27 1881, notes they "pick up all of the colors of the dress material."

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