Examining The History of Gold Gilt Buttons

Updated: Nov 15

Buttons have been around for 3000 years. Historians believe that the first metal buttons manufactured in America were made in Philadelphia by a German immigrant, Casper Wistar, around the turn of the 18th century. Soon after, Henry Witeman started manufacturing metal buttons in New York City. Prior to this all the metal buttons worn by the colonists were imported from Europe. Even as more and more button manufacturers began to set up their shops in America during the 18th Century, there still were not enough local manufactures to meet the demand. The majority of metal buttons that the colonists wore throughout the 18th century were manufactured in Europe and imported to the American colonies. Copper and brass buttons were extremely popular during the 18th century in part because they are very pliable or ductile. Copper and brass buttons could be stamped, engraved, plated or gilded without losing their strength or breaking. The gold gilt buttons in the cover photo pictured above were all found by Peter Eles.

Buttons were not just simply an article of utility. They certainly were considered important because of the function they served but they were also valued as forms of personal adornment. Up until about the Victorian period wearing a large quantity of buttons was seen as a status symbol. People not only wanted to wear a lot of buttons they also wanted their buttons to look attractive. The shape, decoration, and material of a button spoke about the person who was wearing it. They provided others with a sense of the personality of the wearer.

Gilding was one of the most common surface treatments used on buttons during the tail end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. A gilt button has a thin layer of precious metal covering it. Gilding gives a button a gold or silver appearance at a fraction of the cost. Gold gilt buttons were especially popular. People liked them because they were both elegant and affordable. The material make up of a button is not always a reliable indicator of one’s economic or social status. Gilt buttons are the perfect example of this. The gilt on a button might seem to indicate that the person wearing it held a more upscale lifestyle but that's not necessarily the case. Gilt buttons although pricier than brass buttons were not exactly expensive.

It's not clear the exact date when button manufacturers first began gilding buttons. Some historians believe that the first gilt buttons were made in Birmingham, England sometime during the second half of the 18th century. Birmingham has a long standing history surrounding metal working and has often been referred to as the center of the world's button making. Some historians have suggested that John Taylor of Birmingham (1710/1711-1772) was the first to take up making gilt buttons on a commercial scale. Some have also gone as far as even crediting Taylor with being the inventor of the gilt button altogether. It is impossible to say with certainty that Taylor was the inventor of the gilt button though. There's no irrefutable proof one way or another. We are left only with tales of stories told or legends to go from. The thing about legends is that they often aren't reliable. With any given legend it's difficult to distinguish the facts from the fiction. Taylor certainly did manufacture gilt buttons. He made a small fortune doing so. And a great number of gilt buttons were without a doubt manufactured in Birmingham, England during the 18th and 19th century. It's impossible however to say with absolute certainty when exactly, where exactly, and who exactly is responsible for manufacturing the first gilt button. We do know however that American button makers were late to enter the game. Many historians believe that American button makers didn't begin manufacturing gilt buttons in the states until sometime around the year 1810. Prior to this gilt buttons were made in Europe and imported to America.

The earliest gilt buttons produced were one piece. Gilt buttons manufactured during the end of the 18th century were generally large in size, approximately 36 mm in diameter. From 1770 - 1800 large gilt one piece buttons were the style. The early 19th century gilt buttons were much smaller in size approximately 20 mm in diameter. The gilt buttons of the 19th century were often decorated with cut and chased designs. Between the years 1810 - 1830 plain gilt buttons were almost exclusively worn on men's coats. By the year 1820, two piece gilt buttons were being manufactured in England. Shortly thereafter two piece gilt buttons were introduced in the United States as well. Between the years 1830-1850 gold gilt buttons were extremely popular. The demand for gold gilt buttons was exceedingly great. This time period is often referred to as the "Golden Age". Ultimately the popularity of gold gilt buttons worn by civilians during the 18th and 19th centuries was highly dependent on the whims of fashion. During the 1850's the quality of the gilt dress button began to decline greatly which in turn I'm sure had an effect on their popularity. Who would want to purchase a poor quality dress button that quickly lost its gilt?

Gold gilt buttons were not just a part of the civilian’s attire. The US army and other government officials adopted gold gilt buttons as a part of their uniforms. The use of gold gilt buttons to signify authority or a sort of official status became common during the 19th century. Gilt buttons seldom appear alone on uniform attire. They almost always appear in some quantity, usually in even numbers, balanced side by side.

Some of the most beautiful gilt metal buttons manufactured were made especially for military uniforms. Why exactly did these 19th century soldiers wear so many beautiful gold gilt buttons on their uniforms? Why bother to look your best when you were going off to fight a war? Was it simply for sheer vanity? Perhaps there is more to it than just the admiration of one's own appearance.

Have you ever noticed that the clothing we wear seems to have an impact on not only how we view ourselves but also on how others view us as well? Put on a nice looking outfit and you ooze self-confidence. Stroll on over to the bank in your fancy suit and tie and pay close attention to how nicely you get treated. Sure it might be a coincidence that they just called you sir. Maybe the next time you head on over to the bank to make a transaction though try wearing something a little different. Put on a pair of baggy sweatpants and a ratty old t-shirt. Hell, don't even bother to brush your hair, maybe just throw on an old ball cap and then take note to see if there’s a change in the way you get treated. They might still call you sir. The changes in their demeanor might be very subtle, maybe not as big of a smile on their face as they greet you. I can also pretty much guarantee you that they're probably going to ask you to show your ID. Whether we care to admit it or not, our appearance certainly does have an impact, even if just a small one, on the way we view ourselves and are viewed by others.

It's important for a soldier to take great pride in their abilities and appearance. Such confidence can often be critical to their success in battle. An officer’s appearance is a powerful part of military leadership. Officers are essentially always on parade and the fancy uniform attire with the shiny gold gilt buttons helps to build the morale of those who see it. I imagine that there are times when it is very hard for a solider at war to keep his courage up. I tend to think that their uniform in a way helps to give them that extra bit of confidence that they just might need to get them through that next battle. Perhaps maybe just maybe attention to one’s attire is as important to winning as say firepower or the maneuvers one makes in battle or maybe not but if you're going to fight why not look good while you're do it?

Gilding is an age old technique. The ancient Egyptians loved to decorate using gilding. Gilding technology has developed from the simple wrapping of gold foil around an object to the sticking of gold leaf to the surface of a metal object in a variety of different ways. Fire-gilding was eventually developed, and was used for 1,500 years until electro-plating technology became the preferred method of gilding.

In order to create gold gilt buttons, gold is first amalgamated with mercury and then placed in a vessel with preferably brass or copper buttons. The buttons are then stirred with a brush so that they become coated with the amalgam. An amalgam is any alloy of mercury with another metal, in this case gold. The amalgam itself can be prepared in various ways, but essentially it involves mixing small pieces of gold and mercury together. After the surface of the buttons has been coated, it is necessary to remove the mercury. At this point in the process the buttons don't look gold in color at all. They are a dull silvery color due to the excess amount of mercury still on them. To remove the mercury the buttons are heated. The heat vaporizes the mercury leaving behind a layer of gold gilt on the surface of the buttons. The gold left behind is bonded to the metal button. This bond that is formed using this method is more durable and long lasting than an adhesive or a mechanical bond. The gilt surface must then be polished. When the process is complete the buttons are a bright and lustrous gold color.

Europe passed an act of parliament in the year 1796 that required that all gilded buttons be designated as such to distinguish them from genuine gold buttons. As a result European button manufacturers began marking the backs of their buttons with quality marks. American button makers copied these markings and began using them as well. Most of these quality markings appear on buttons that were made between the years 1800 - 1850. Below is a list of some of the typical quality markings that commonly appear on buttons from this time period.

  • Standard quality

  • Extra quality

  • Fine quality

  • Superior quality

  • Best quality

  • Superfine quality

  • Gilt

  • Extra gilt

  • Fine gilt

  • Double gilt

  • Treble gilt

  • Orange colour

  • Rich orange

  • Best orange gilt

  • Extra orange gilt

  • Rich gold colour

  • Extra rich

These slogans denoting the quality of the buttons were really essentially just an early marketing technique that manufacturers used. These quality markings were not strictly enforced by any means. Manufacturers really just used them as a way to promote their products. The difference in quality could seldom be noted.

You will discover if you haven't already that there are a countless amount of buttons marked with the terms gilt, double gilt, and treble gilt. The standard amount of gold used to gilt buttons was 5 grains per gross. 1 gross is equal to 12 dozen or 144 pieces. In reality, though, many grosses probably had gilt with less than that amount. Theoretically speaking the terms double gilt and treble gilt are supposed to denote a higher standard of gilding than usual. These terms however are somewhat of a misleading play on words. For one thing no button is ever gilted twice, let alone three times. Buttons only undergo the gilt process once. In theory, a double gilted button is gilded with two times the amount of standard gilt or 10 grains per gross and a treble gilt button is gilded with three times the amount of standard gilt or 15 grains per gross. I say in theory because the difference in the quality of the gilt seldom could be noticed. I don't want to sound like I'm coming down hard on the button manufacturers for their use of these misleading slogans. After all it's just marketing at its finest. I'm also not about to suggest that the button manufacturers were outright liars when they branded their buttons as being double gilt or treble gilt. I’m just simply going to point out that a 9k gold treble gilt button wouldn't have much more gilt than say a pure 24k single gilt button.

Sometimes we get lucky and dig up an old button that has retained some of its gold gilt. At other times we aren't so lucky. When I see that little glimmer of gold shining though the dirt on any old button I can't help but smile a little because it's a small piece of the past that somehow managed to retain part of it original beauty. I hope that you enjoyed reading this week's blog and viewing all the wonderful photos of gold gilt buttons. Have a great week! Happy Hunting!

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