Updated: Sep 22
One of my favorite things to find when I go out metal detecting is buttons. It is especially exciting when you are detecting at an old colonial site and you pull a large, flat button from the hole you are digging. Whenever that happens to me, I always find myself holding my breath as I examine the button more closely to see if there is some sort of design on the front. The designs on 18th century buttons are simply just fascinating to look at. Each button is an intimate and yet showy reflection of society. They tell a story from a time long ago and are a model of 18th century engineering and technology on the smallest of scales. If it turns out that the big old button is just plain, well that honestly is always kind of a little disappointing, at least for me. Sure, plain old flat buttons are cool to find too. They are a piece of history after all but the ones with designs well, those are my favorite. The dandy buttons in the photo above were dug by Dave Wise.
A lot of people in the metal detecting community refer to these large, often decorative, flat buttons that were popular during the late 18th century as dandy buttons. Dandy means smartly dressed. The term dandy was first used in the late 18th century as a way to describe a group of trendsetting young aristocrats in England. If you were to do a quick search in the Merian Webster dictionary today, you would find the term dandy defined as "a man who gives exaggerated attention to personal appearance". The early 19th century definition of a dandy essentially is a man who places high importance upon his physical appearance, the use of refined language, and leisurely hobbies. A man who dressed fashionably, sometimes flamboyantly, with a careful stylishness. A self-made man from a middle-class background who strove to imitate an aristocratic lifestyle. The term dandy button, I believe may originate from the fact that these large, flat, decorative buttons were worn by elegantly attired gentlemen during the late 18th century and early 19th century.
The term dandy button itself is rather loosely defined. In my search for information, I was unable to find the term "dandy button" used in any reference books at all. Scholars refer to these buttons simply as large flat buttons. Oftentimes using the type of metal, such as brass or copper or other terms such as gilt to describe them. The term dandy button is essentially a slang term used among those who metal detect. As I understand it, in order for a button to be considered a dandy button it must meet the following basic criteria. Dandy buttons are made of metal, generally brass. They are the size of 30 mm in diameter or larger. They date in age from 1770-1795 or some experts say 1800, but were used heavily up until at least 1815. And lastly and very importantly they were civilian buttons and would have been sewn onto the colonists' dressier, more elegant attire rather than their everyday work clothes.
With any slang term, the precise definition of the term may vary depending on who is using it. I have learned that some people only refer to the large, flat buttons with engraved, or stamped designs as dandy buttons. While others also group the plain, large sized flat buttons from that time period into the category of dandy buttons as well. These large, rather utilitarian, flat buttons with no design would have also been used to adorn the colonists more refined clothing, so they deserve to be mentioned, even if they aren't as pretty as the others.
During the 18th century, in Colonial America, buttons were predominantly worn by just men. During that time period, most of the clothing women wore was fastened together with laces or hook and eyes. Practically, every piece of 18th century clothing that men wore utilized buttons. Large sized buttons were normally used on coats, jackets, frocks, great coats, and breeches. The definition of a coat, jacket, and breeches shouldn't require explanation. A frock was similar to a coat, but more comfortable in design and had a turned down collar. A great coat was generally worn over a suit and was used to protect oneself against the elements. Detailed references of merchant records from the 18th century all seem to indicate that buttons, during that time, were often described by functional names, such as jacket buttons or shirt buttons. A coat button would most likely never be worn on a shirt and vice versa. However, I think it's important to point out that there is no guarantee though that specific button types were always used on certain types of clothing.
A lot of the brass dandy buttons we seem to find while out metal detecting appear to be made from flat discs where the shank was attached with solder to the back of the button. This was a common method used to make brass buttons during the late 18th century. Discs in various sizes would be stamped out of sheets of brass and then shanks would be attached to the back along with a piece of solder. The buttons were then placed into the oven so that the solder would secure the shanks to the back of the button. And then designs would have been engraved or stamped onto the face of the buttons. 18th century buttons made using this method have alpha style shanks. The loop of the shank is soldered flux with the back of the button. Pictured below is an example of some dandy buttons that were made using this method.
The designs found on dandy buttons vary from very simple to intricate pieces of artwork. Several dandy buttons have neat geometric designs. They really are a work of art. For the majority of the 18th century designs on buttons were cast or hand cut by an engraver. In 1769, John Pickering from London introduced a method for stamping designs, by machine, onto brass. This new technology was utilized by button manufacturers during the late 18th century.
Now I've never actually heard anyone ever refer to large tombac buttons as dandy buttons. Tombac buttons really fall into a category of their own. I'm only mentioning them now simply because they were popular during the same time period as dandy buttons and would have also been worn on the colonist finer dress clothes. Around 1760, a form of brass called tombac was developed and people began casting tombac buttons for use. Tombac buttons have a distinct silvery look. They were used between 1760-1800. The high zinc content makes tombac buttons rather brittle. The decorations on these buttons were normally engraved rather than stamped.
I would imagine that for a lot of people their favorite kind of dandy button to find while out metal detecting would probably be a GW inaugural button. I can attest that digging one is certainly a thrilling experience. These buttons were a commemorative tribute made in honor of George Washington, our first US president. I believe that there are a total of 26 known varieties with different patriotic designs and motifs.
Thank you to everyone who shared photos of their dandy buttons with me for this blog! You probably noticed that each photograph includes a notation of who the buttons belong to and were dug by. There really are so many amazing dandy buttons out there. I know that every time I dig one I feel truly blessed. If you have a picture of a dandy button or a comment you'd like to share you can post it in the section below. I hope you enjoyed reading this article. Lastly, I would really like to thank both Todd Yerks and Dave Wise for sharing some of their knowledge on the subject of dandy buttons with me.