A Brief Look at the History of Pewter Buttons in America

Updated: Aug 29

During the 18th and 19th century pewter items could be found in every household in America. Pewter is a generic name for a group of tin alloys. The composition of pewter can vary quite considerably. Pewter metal is comprised mainly of tin which is then mixed with varying proportions of lead, zinc, antimony, bismuth, or copper. The best quality pewter contains very little lead. As the quantity of lead in pewter increases the quality of the pewter decreases. Too much lead added into the mix creates a dull, soft, low grade of pewter. When there is a fairly high amount of tin content the pewter is a fairly hard, white alloy. The highest grade pewter metal will contain about 90% tin and the remaining 10% is generally comprised of mostly copper or antimony or both. The pewter buttons pictured above in the cover photo were dug by Peter Eles.

Pewter was durable, practical, and always rather useful. It has a rather low melting point and is relatively easy to cast. It's a versatile and beautiful metal. I know it doesn't always come out of the ground looking very beautiful but prior to being buried in the ground for 200 plus years, high quality pewter shined up quite nicely so much so that you might even mistake it for silver. It also would have easily withstood the daily abuse from its users and when a pewter item wore out they could easily be melted down and recast into something new

During the 18th and 19th century the demand for buttons was enormous and pewter was an ideal metal choice. Pewter buttons served as a matter of ornament for those who adorned their clothing with them. Buttons were a symbol of status for the wearer. They also served a very practical purpose as small fasteners for everyday pieces of clothing and attire.

During the 18th century, the button manufacturers here in America were mostly all small scale businesses. During the Colonial Period, there was no tax on pewter items made in Britain and imported here to America. The import tax on tin was quite high however. As a result many pewter buttons during that time period were imported to America. It was an attempt on Britain's part to keep the colonists here in America from becoming to self-sufficient. By the end of the 18th century Americans were free of British import restrictions and we're producing many more buttons here in America. During the time period of 1800-1830, the American button industry struggled greatly though. American button makers were in competition with British manufactures. They continuously worked to improve the technical processes involved in each stage of manufacturing.

The pewter used to make buttons during the 17th century was generally rather soft metal that scratched easily. The buttons typically consisted of 60% tin and 40% lead or antimony. During the 18th century the majority of pewter buttons that were made seemed to consist of about 90% tin, 5% lead, and 5% copper. By the beginning of the 19th century, practically all pewter buttons were being made from a high quality, good grade of pewter.

Various methods of casting pewter buttons were utilized by button makers during the 18th and 19th century. Early on in the 18th century button makers would simultaneously cast the face and shank of pewter buttons in molds. The shank would then get directly attached to the buttons back side. A hole would later be hand drilled through the shank to form the eye.

Another technique for casting pewter buttons that was most common during the first half of the 18th century is often called the hollow cast. The face and back of the button were cast as one piece around a separate often iron shank. Buttons cast in this manner will have two holes on the backside of the button which allowed for the gasses that were created during the casting process to easily escape.

Later on in the middle of the 18th century, the casting process was improved upon and molds were made so that an eyed shank could be cast with the buttons body. Pewter buttons were cast using small bronze or brass hinged molds. These molds made anywhere from 1 to 12 buttons. Molten pewter would be poured into the hinged mold. Once the pewter solidified the strip of buttons were removed from the mold and cut apart. Buttons cast in this manner have a raised line on their back. The shanks frequently broke off of this type cast button however.

Another casting method involved the face and back of the button to be cast separately. The edges were ground flat, and then the face and back were brazed or soldered together to complete the button. In most cases the back of the button was cast around a wire shank. Around about the year 1800, the Grilley brothers of Waterbury, Connecticut introduced the improved wire eye shank on pewter buttons. Button makers began casting brass or iron wired shanks into the back of pewter buttons. With this style shank you will find some buttons to have a seem mark and others that have a spun back. Some makers also soldered the wire shanks to the back of pewter buttons.

The sand casting method was frequently utilized to cast pewter buttons as well. To cast buttons using this method you first need to make a great number of impressions of the button pattern in the sand. Inside the center of each impression a shank is then inserted. Fused metal is poured over the mold. Once cooled the buttons are taken out the molds and cleaned, then placed in a lathe and turned. They are polished to different degrees of fineness. Lastly they are arranged on sieve and immersed into a boiling solution of granulated tin and cream of tartar. This gives the buttons a fine layer of metal wash which improves there over all look.

Many of the pewter buttons we find are plain with no design. Plain pewter buttons were used on both civilian and military clothing. Pewter Buttons with different designs were popular as well. The ones with various designs are of course my favorite. During the 18th century the designs found on pewter buttons were made through the casting process with molds. Around the year 1800 plain pewter buttons began having designs stamped into them after casting. Many different types of designs can be found on pewter buttons. Floral designs, stars, basket weave designs, and other geometric patterned designs were popular during the 18th and 19th century. These types of designs can be found on civilian pewter buttons.

During the 18th and 19th century the American people also made pewter buttons of their own, in their own homes. The casting process wasn't extremely difficult and if they happened to be fortunate enough to own a mold of their own well then they could easily cast buttons from melted pewter. These cast buttons are usually crudely made and often lack the uniformity or perfection in design compared to buttons which were manufactured by button makers. People who did not own the appropriate molds would frequently just employ the services of a traveling tinker to recast their worn out pewter items into new items that they could use.

The pewter buttons that the soldiers wore often had lettering, numbering, or other various symbols or emblems on them. The French first started adding numbers to their uniform buttons in the year 1762. The British and the Americans began doing the same shortly thereafter. These letters, numbers, and emblems indicate the soldier’s regiment.

A great deal of the buttons on the uniforms of enlisted personnel during the American Revolution were cast of pewter. During the Revolutionary War enlisted soldiers in the Continental Army wore pewter buttons with the initials USA. These buttons have the historic intertwined "USA" design on the face of the button.

One interesting feature of a soldier’s uniform was the wide variety of buttons that the soldiers created themselves. Soldiers who served during the Revolutionary War created their own buttons using bone, wood, or by pouring melted pewter into molds. Soldiers would sometimes etch their regimental information onto the buttons they made.

Enlisted US soldiers continued to wear pewter buttons on their uniforms throughout the 19th century as well. For example tens of thousands of script I pewter buttons were made for men enlisted in the military who served during the War of 1812. Traditional button casting methods were time consuming though and the manufacturing process was just too slow to meet the needs of the infantry during the War of 1812. During that time period button manufacturers were continuously working to make improvement to their traditional methods of manufacturing for cast pewter buttons. You can find pewter buttons that were worn by soldiers who served during the Civil War as well. However, once satisfactory gilt brass buttons could be made cheaply and efficiently, pewter buttons for enlisted men began to be phased out.

Sometime after the middle of the 19th century, pewter buttons for women were introduced into fashion. Prior to that time, pewter buttons were worn primarily just by men. Have you ever noticed that the button placement on men's clothing and women's clothing is different? This still rings true even today. If you were to compare a man's button up shirt to a woman's, you will find that the buttons on men's clothing are placed on the right side while the buttons on women's clothing are placed on the left side. During the Victorian Period women wore articles of clothing with pewter buttons. Many of these buttons had stamped or cast designs that were enhanced by bright cutting and tinted with varnish.

A button's shank is not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing part of the button but it is often extremely helpful when trying to identify the age of an old button. Its shape and type can provide you with important information that can help you date the age of your button. It's quite difficult to date the age of a pewter button from its shank though since variations of the same types of shanks were used for hundreds of years.

Between the years 1800-1840, some American pewter button makers marked their products with back marks. About 25 or so American pewter button makers back marks have been identified. They all seem to be from Connecticut with places of business mostly located in the cities of Waterbury, Southington, and the Northford area. It is pretty rare to find a pewter button metal detecting that has a back mark.

Buttons are essentially a simple utilitarian object. Objects like such often get taken for granted by masses. Buttons are my favorite thing to find when out metal detecting. I personally have never seen a button I didn't like. A button packs an extraordinary amount of information about a given time and place. They give us a glimpse of what life was like long ago. Pewter buttons are fragile, little pieces of history. I find these small, unique, and quite diverse buttons endearing. There is a mystique behind their history that I personally find quite fascinating.

What exactly is it that keeps you motivated to stay active in this hobby? For me it is the possibility of discovering an old button and the joy that comes with recovering it from the ground and being able to preserve a unique and special piece of history. If you have pictures of the pewter buttons you have dug, I would love to see them! I hope you have fabulous week!

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