The history of the western world, held within a button

The history of the western world, held within a button

The history of the western world, held within a button

Updated 23 May 2017, 14:35 AEST

They are invisible everyday items you only notice when they are missing, but for a few centuries buttons were the status symbols of their time.

They are invisible everyday items you only notice when they are missing, but for a few centuries buttons were the status symbols of their time.

And, if you know how to read them, buttons are peepholes into fascinating stories from history.

Unlike today, in the 18th century buttons were a status symbol and object of adornment worn by men and women.

"The main people that had the buttons that mattered were the aristocracy. They were a show-off element," explained Robyn Caddy, founder of the Victorian Button Collectors Club.

When Ms Caddy founded the club in 1996, there was a burgeoning button-collecting culture in the United States, where button competitions are held, but there were no official clubs in Australia.

Her passion for buttons started with the discovery of a picture button in her friend's antique shop.

Picture buttons were highly detailed, miniature relief designs often manufactured from metal or wood in England during the 18th century.

They would often depict a popular story from folklore, popular culture or religion.

Wealthy Victorian women would wear panels of the 'popular culture' picture buttons down their long dresses as fashion items and conversation pieces.

Through her love of buttons, Ms Caddy has developed a huge collection and a great wealth of knowledge.

To her, buttons are not just tiny beautiful objects, but intimate historical artefacts.

"I look at an 18th century button and I can see that it's been worn, and you sort of imagine the man handling them and putting on his coat, or his manservant doing his buttons up," she said.

"It's so evocative of another period in time. If I had the chance I'd love to go back for one day, in about 1700. That'd be great."

Buttons feature Marie Antoinette's lover

Fellow collector and club member Andrea Lowenthal likes to collect Count Fersen buttons.

"Count Fersen was believed to be a lover of Marie Antoinette. He was supposedly Swedish and he came to a fairly sticky end," she said.

"The people of Sweden decided that they didn't really like him and he was trampled to death."

By the 1900s, long after Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine, Count Fersen had become a much better-liked historical figure.

"He was a romantic hero from a bygone era," Ms Lowenthall said.

"And therefore the perfectly tantalising popular culture reference to lithograph on to an early 20th century button — the banished, forbidden lover of a 'promiscuous' French queen."

Buttons can even indicate the death of a royal, such as the black glass buttons that became popular while Queen Victoria was in mourning after the death of her husband, Prince Albert

Ms Caddy often receives requests from people to sift through their button tins.

On one occasion she discovered two exquisite, silver-gilt buttons with gemstones, hallmarked on the back with the word Brittania.

"If you've got a button tin, you should find out what you've got before you dispose of them," Ms Caddy said.

Buttons around the world

Historically, decorative buttons were worn across the globe.

In South-East Asia, decorated ivory and jade were worn traditionally, then later in Japan, satsuma buttons were sold to western tourists.

These were exquisitely decorated, hand-painted ceramic.

Inuit buttons were carved out of bone and walrus tusk into shapes of animals, or etched with images reflecting some of the traditional folklore, worn by Arctic Canadians as toggles.

These are still collected, often via purchase on eBay.

Collectable buttons range in price from about $20 right up the scale, and like any passion for collecting, it is easy to become obsessed.

"The most I've ever spent on a single button is probably $1,500," Ms Caddy admitted.

"But I buy second hand op-shop clothes and I'm a very dreadful dresser."