A Look At Patriotic Buttons: Rattlesnake Buttons, Commemorative GW Buttons, and Diplomatic Buttons

Updated: Aug 29

Patriotism is defined as a deep love of one's country best expressed by a zealous and unselfish devotion to it's well being through active participation and vigorous support of its success. It is something that is unquestionably good. It goes beyond the notions of loyalty to one's country, beyond the simple act of saluting one's flag. Patriotism involves sacrifice.

Several of the early patriots of our great country were just ordinary men. A lot of them were members of the working class. They worked each day to support their families and put food on the table. When the revolution began, it began with the working class, mostly from the northeast colonies. It was after a few wealthy folks got behind the movement that resistance to British rule gained much greater momentum. During the country's founding era, a small number of people practiced economic patriotism. They put their country's interests ahead of their own. They risked their financial well being and some of them lost it all.

Those early patriots not only risked their financial well being but their lives as well. They dreamed of freedom and liberty, they fought hard to secure it, and resolved to preserve it. They demonstrated their devotion through acts of battlefield bravery. Their determination and belief in the cause was oh so very profound. They refused to stop, nothing short of victory.

Throughout the revolution and during the early days of the republic, a variety of symbols were used to illustrate patriotism, such as the rattlesnake, the liberty cap, the liberty pole, the eagle, and George Washington himself.

The rattlesnake was used as a symbol by the colonies from the beginning of the French and Indian War and until sometime after the end of the Revolutionary War. Benjamin Franklin described it best when he explained why he felt the rattlesnake was an ideal symbol for the colonies. He said the rattlesnake is an emblem of true courage. It may appear weak, but it's wounds are fatal. It never begins an attack and never wounds until it has given amble and generous notice. And it never, ever, surrenders. The symbol of the rattlesnake must have been well liked and generally accepted by the people. It served as a prominent symbol of liberty during that time period. It appeared on flags, cemetery monuments, in printed newspapers, caricatures, on paper money, and on buttons.

Rattlesnake buttons came in a variety of different designs. The picture above is taken from Don Troiani's book Insignia of Independence. As a side note, Don Troiani's book is an excellent resource and I have learned a great deal from reading it. Historians are still learning more about these rattlesnake buttons. Many have been found along side with Revolutionary War buttons. A good majority of them have been found at civilian sites. I really hope I get my coil over one someday. There a few out there hiding in the ground somewhere I'm sure, but only just a few. Rattlesnake buttons simply just don't turn up all that often. I managed to track down a handful of people who have dug one of these amazing buttons. A piece of history that is in essence one of the earliest forms of American patriotism. I had the opportunity to chat with Robert J. Silverstein regarding rattlesnake buttons, their history, and the meaning behind their symbolism. He has done extensive research on these early buttons.

Peter Eles dug the rattlesnake button pictured above. He found it in South Carolina. It has a total of 13 rattlesnake eggs on it and a rattlesnake in a six point star shaped formation. The position of the eggs on the button also take on the form of a 6 point star. It is generally accepted that the 13 eggs represents the 13 colonies. Robert J Silverstein explained to me that the eggs symbolize the birth of the new nation. During the early days of the republic, the states were in their infancy, like fragile eggs, that needed to be nurtured.

The rattlesnake button pictured above was dug Paul Galotti. It has a liberty cap pole on it. The liberty cap pole originated in the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires. It is a symbol that aroused passions and rallied patriots. Liberty poles generally consisted of two elements a wood pole and a phrygian or liberty cap. Placement of the cap onto the pole changes the piece of wood from a simple pole to a liberty pole. It conveys the message of liberty and freedom. The rattlesnake is intertwined around the liberty pole and there are 13 rattlesnake eggs along the top rim of the button, in the form of an arch.

Paul Galotti was actually blessed with finding two of these amazing rattlesnake buttons. He also dug the coiled rattlesnake button pictured above. It is believed that the rattlesnake images where the snake is no longer swallowing its own tail reflects the new nations growth and a breaking of the shackles of the old world's order.

The rattlesnake button pictured above was found by Philip Mandolare. It has 13 raised, six point stars encircled by a rattlesnake snake holding it's own tail in it's mouth. The rattlesnake being a symbol of rebellion and a struggle for independence and the stars representing the 13 colonies. Robert J. Silverstein explains the deeper meaning of the stars found on these buttons. They symbolize constellations in the sky and the 13 states of America becoming a part of the celestial heavens.

Stephen Jensen found a rattlesnake button with 13 stars, encircled by a snake with his tail in his mouth, as well. A few slightly different varieties of this style rattlesnake button have been discovered. It difficult to tell due to the wear that has occurred while the button was in the ground, but there appears to be slight difference between the shape of the stars on Stephen's button and the shape of the stars on Phillip's button.

The rattlesnake button pictured above was privately purchased by Gino DiCarlo. I don't really know it's history, but it's wear certainly indicates that it spent some time in the ground. Gino's button is quite interesting. The rattlesnake head is reverse for one. Generally, you find these style rattlesnake buttons with the head facing in the other direction. It also has 13 eggs on it as opposed to 13 stars. In addition to rattlesnake buttons there are several other early patriotic buttons out there. I wish you the best of luck getting your coil over one of them. It's a tough feat. You can find information and illustrations of these early patriotic buttons in the book The Record of American Uniform and Historical Buttons by Alphaeus H. Albert.

There are two different styles of I Axe My Way buttons shown in Albert's book of buttons. The true meaning of the phrase "I Axe My Way" is an enigma and has unfortunately been lost to time. The buttons may have some connection to colonial Connecticut. Similar wording of the phrase appears on Higley cents of colonial Connecticut. These buttons are extremely rare to find.

You will also find a Sucs the Plough button shown in Albert's book under the Patriotic and Commemorative section. The saying "Success of the Plough" or " "Speed of the Plough" is a wish for success and prosperity. In my research, I was unable to discover any examples of this button other than what is shown in books.

There are also a couple liberty buttons and a liberty cap button listed in Albert's book of buttons as well. The word liberty can be defined as the quality or state of being free. The word liberty also suggests release from former restraint. The liberty cap was a popular and powerful symbol during the revolution. Many patriots wore red knitted wool or felt liberty caps. Sometimes the word "Liberty" or the motto "Liberty or Death" was knitted into the bands. Liberty caps are conical in shape. Similar in style to the caps seen worn by the smurfs. A distinctive forward bent cone shaped cap. These early liberty and liberty cap buttons hardly ever seem to show up. Basically all of these early patriotic buttons are practically downright, next to impossible, hard to find. They are rarer than hen's teeth. If you ever manage to get your coil over one well then you should certainly consider yourself pretty darn lucky. I dream about finding one, but realistically realize that it probably won't ever wind up happening for me.

You have a better chance of finding a George Washington Inaugural button and I think we all know that those don't wind up getting discovered every day now either. There are certainly more of them out there though. GW buttons fall under the category of commemorative buttons. Commemorative buttons are used as a memorial to mark an event or a person. GW buttons were worn to show support for George Washington, the first president of the United States of America. They were made to commemorate and mark the event of George Washington's first inauguration in 1789 and his second inauguration in 1793. During the early days of the republic George Washington served as a prominent symbol of patriotism.

The button pictured above was dug by Daniel J. Gildea. The words Unity, Prosperity, and Independence encircle the button. In the center there is a 13 point star and at each of it's points there is a smaller 6 point star. It is listed in Albert's book of buttons under the Patriotic and Commemorative button section. However, I have also seen this particular button identified as a George Washington inaugural button. It's slogan, size, and design is similar to the dotted script GW button which makes people think it was a part of the GW inaugural series. Regardless of whether you categorize it as a GW inaugural button or not, buttons don't get much more patriotic than this one. The new republic offered the hope of unity, prosperity, and independence to its citizens.

The GW in an oval button pictured above was dug by Ron Phelps. The words "Long Live the President" are engraved into it. There are a few different varieties of this style GW button listed in Albert's book of buttons. The style Ron found has a wide spacing between the letters G and W.

Manny Birittieri found the eagle with date George Washington inaugural button pictured above. The words "March The Fourth 1789" and " Memorable Era" are engraved around it's rim. It is mostly accepted that this button was made shortly before March 4, 1789, the date George Washington's first inauguration was scheduled for.

Manny Birittieri also found the eagle with star George Washington inaugural button pictured above. It came out of a reservoir in NY state. The eagle represents freedom and is an emblem of strength and independence that has been adopted by this great nation of ours. Benjamin Franklin believed that the turkey would be a better symbol for America because it is a more respected bird. Congress clearly disagreed.

Donnie Bailey found the four eagle with star GW inaugural buttons pictured above. They were all found at the same site. An eagle is displayed in the center of each button along with a heraldic estoile above it. The term heraldic estoile refers to wavy-sided stars, usually of six points. It has been said that this style GW button was favored by Revolutionary War troops who served under General George Washington. There are a few different varieties of this style GW button listed in Albert's book of buttons.

I found an eagle with star George Washington inaugural button last year. It is pictured above. The one I found has 49 marks around it's edge. I read that during one of the first battles of the American Revolution, that occurred during the early morning, the noise and struggle awoke the sleeping eagles. The story goes that the eagles flew from their nests, shrieking about. They encircled the men who were fighting. The Patriots later said the eagles were shrieking for our freedom. When I look at my GW button, that I found, I like to remember the struggles and battles those patriots faced for freedom, our freedom. And I like to picture those shrieking eagles as they flew overhead of the fighting soldiers, in solitary grandeur.

Some style George Washington inaugural buttons are rarer than others. The GW button pictured above was dug by Richard Provost. It has a spread winged eagle above the letters GW. The monogram GW is in script font. There appears to be a limited numbers of these buttons known to exist.

Jim Flynn found the extremely rare GW button pictured above. There are only a couple of this particular style GW button known to exist. It is inscribed with GW in it's center. The inscription "Long Life The President" encircles the letters GW. It is a beautiful, hand engraved piece of artwork. It is an exceptional find.

Stephen Weippert dug the linked states George Washington inaugural button pictured above. The design is an endless chain of 13 links. The initials of each of the 13 states are inside each of the links. The design symbolizes the importance of unity among the states and the importance of a strong leader and executor of the nation's government.

Casey Ress also dug a linked states GW inaugural button. It's in beautiful condition. They say that the design of this button is derived from the design first used on Continental Currency fractional notes issued in the year 1776. It was a very popular design and was used repeatedly on currency and coinage. The design can also be found on Rev War era regimental flags and prints from that time period.

Dave Wise has found a total of 13 George Washington inaugural buttons. He dug 5 of the eagle with stars buttons all in the same day. Talk about having an amazing day metal detecting. It must have been such a rush to find 5 GW buttons, all in the same day. Among the George Washington inaugural buttons that Dave has dug, there are several of the eagles with stars style, a GW in oval button, and a March the Fourth button. There are other style GW buttons that I just simply didn't have a chance to cover in this blog. If you're interested in learning more about the different style GW buttons you should definitely check out Robert J. Silverstein's website. It has photographs and information about all the different style GW buttons that are known to exist. It also has a great deal of information on rattlesnake buttons as well. I'll share the link at the end of this blog. I also recommend purchasing a copy of The Record of American Uniform and Historical Buttons by Alphaeus H. Albert. The book is loaded with information on GW buttons and practically every other type of button you could imagine. Diplomatic buttons fall under their own category. They were worn by diplomats, ambassadors, and consular officers. I wanted to briefly highlight just a few of them because diplomacy had such an important impact on the American Revolution. The United States needed the support of Britain's enemies in order to gain its Independence. In addition, the images on these buttons are pretty darn patriotic.

This early 1796-1802 US officials diplomatic service button pictured above was dug by Chris Boardwine. In the center of the button is a federal style eagle. The eagle has a federal striped shield over it's chest. The shield has 13 stripes to represent the 13 states of the new republic. The eagle holds an olive branch in one of it's talons and a bundle of 13 arrows in it's other talon. In the eagles mouth is a banner with the motto E Pluribus Unum which means "Out of many, one". The button has 16, six point stars circling it's rim.

Peter Else found the 1797-1801 diplomatic officials naval button that is pictured above. It has a federal style eagle in the center of the button. The eagle has a shield over it's chest and in it's wing there is an oval shield with an anchor. In one of the eagles talons there is a bundle of 3 arrows and in the other talon there is an olive branch. Encircling the eagle, along the rim of the button are 16, six point stars. The eagle is a universal symbol of power and authority. During the early days of the republic, the American navy kept ships at distant stations in the Mediterranean, the Far East, the Caribbean, the Southern Atlantic, and the Pacific. They did so to manage international relations and to protect the American citizens as they traveled the seas. The station commanders were diplomats and administrative officers.

Dave Wise dug the 1808-1817 diplomatic officials button pictured above. In the center of the button there is a flying federal style eagle. It is looking downward. In one of the eagle talons is a laurel crown and in the other talon a forked lighting bolt with flames.

The 1810's-1820's diplomatic officials button pictured above was also dug by Dave Wise. There is an eagle that is facing left in the center of the button. In one talon it holds a bundle of arrows and in the other talon an olive branch. There are 17, six points stars encircling the eagle.

Lucky Lou dug the 1820's diplomatic button that is pictured above. In it's center is an eagle that is facing right with a relaxed wing. In one talon it carries a bundle of arrows and in the other talon it carries an olive branch. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog and viewing the photos of all these amazing patriotic and patriotic themed buttons. Happy 4th of July!

Robert J. Silverstein's website:

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