Do you know the oldest button ever found is made of a curved shell and dates back 5,000 years to the Indus Valley Civilization? From ornamental buttons used in the Indus Valley Civilization to the present-day usage of fastening, buttons were first used by Indians. The button remains from ancient India were irregular in shape and had piercings in the middle, just like modern-day buttons.
Other early buttons were made from materials including bone, horn, bronze, and wood. Some buttons were carved into geometric shapes and had holes pierced into them so that they could be attached to clothing by using a thread. The precursor to the button fastener was the fibula, a brooch or pin used to hold two pieces of clothing on the shoulder or chest. The button began to replace the fibula by the early Middle Ages.
Evidence dates the first button and buttonhole closure systems to the 13th century in Germany. This may have been a solution to the problem of securing clothing that was becoming more and more form-fitting, without having to resort to sharp pins. As with almost anything new, buttons became a fad. Buttons and buttonholes covered the clothing of the well to do.
The number of buttons on a piece of clothing and the material the buttons were made from became a status symbol. It is believed that King Louis XIV of France spent over $5 million on buttons in his lifetime.
With the increasing cost of ivory in the 19th century, button manufacturers started using the nuts from a specific kind of palm tree (vegetable ivory) in South America to make buttons. When the nuts from this tree were dried, they were an excellent facsimile for genuine ivory, and are used to make buttons even today. In the 1860s button manufacturers started using celluloid, one of the first types of plastics to make buttons. In the 19th century, buttons were mass-produced from thread, bones and ceramic. The Japanese made buttons from pearls and flooded the button market in 1860.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw more and more men and women wearing suits with linen or cotton shirts underneath, the new uniform for the emerging white-collar working class. Both suit jackets and shirts required buttons as fastenings, and they created the need for inexpensive buttons. Thus, the four-holed pierced button was introduced to both men’s and women’s fashions. However, fine jewellery buttons were still produced by some of the best-known retailers of the day such as Cartier, Liberty’s of London, and Georg Jensen.
Buttons have since proven to be firmly fastened to the very fabric of society – at least the past 5000 years of it. Another one of India’s gifts to the world, even with the development of zippers, poppers and Velcro, buttons are still the fastening of choice for people the world over.
Have you noticed that men’s suit-coats have non-functioning buttons sewn on the sleeves? In the 18th century, King Frederick of Prussia started this practice after an inspection of his troops to discourage them from wiping their nose on their coat sleeves.