Today we seldom give much thought to how our clothes are fastened together. Velcro, zippers, ties, two-way zippers, reversible zippers, and buttons. Sometimes you can learn the most by studying the simplest technology, like buttons.
I have been researching all kinds of buttons including wooden buttons, fabric covered buttons, self buttons, and in particular, glass buttons, for years. I make 1500’s reproduction glass buttons to sell in my shop, and I’m always looking for more information – new finds, old finds, new academic articles, newspaper stories, old books, museum displays – well, you get the idea. The original button that I based my glass buttons on was bought for me by my husband as a surprise. Later, I discovered several more glass buttons, incorrectly identified as gaming pieces. All of these buttons came from a source in the Netherlands. The buttons look black (but are actually very dark purple), with a U-shaped iron shank. Virtually the same exact black glass buttons are found in England, Germany, Maine, and Virginia – a pleasant discovery for me.
Maine and Virginia, you say?
When we are searching for late 16th century artifacts, it is important not to overlook the earliest American colonies. Both Jamestown I and Popham Colony – also known as Fort St. George – were founded in 1607 (just post period!), while St. Augustine, Florida was founded in 1565. Since these sites were inhabited primarily by working people, common, every day, artifacts will predominate. The big advantage to finding locations in North America is that the sites will probably be excavated using American techniques. Now, exactly what do I mean by that apparent bias? You often encounter statements in British journals that say something like “We don’t find many of these buttons, pins, etc., but we would probably find more if we sieved the dirt.” What they are referring to is the fact that historically they didn’t put the most artifact-rich portions of a dig through a fine sieve to catch the tiny artifacts that are easy to miss. ARRGGH! I’ve seen the results of this sieving myself. Dirt that I would have sworn was completely free of any artifacts, was subsequently washed on a window screen. The process yielded sewing pins and seed beads! Anyway, back to black glass buttons… There are black glass buttons, just like the ones from the Netherlands, at both of the Virginia and Maine colonial sites.
Now I have seen the glass buttons from Maine online before and they appeared to have a decorative swirl on the front. Well, in short, the swirl isn’t there. The swirl is an optical artifact. Now what the heck does that mean? The swirl is either a feature that is created by a combination of the lighting and the digitizing process of the original photos, or it is the camera picking up “bubble trails” in the glass. OK, so what is this about bubbles? Well, tiny bubbles in the glass can affect the way the glass transmits or absorbs light. So a swirl of bubbles inside the glass might show up in the camera but not be visible to the naked eye.
Some concerted effort to discover the location of buttons from either of these sites yielded exciting news for me personally. The Virginia glass buttons were contained in storage, but the Maine glass buttons are on display. Augusta, Maine is only a short 650 mile trip from our summer SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) event. I actually saw the buttons from the Popham Colony in person in the Maine State Museum. The display is well lit with the buttons displayed in a conveniently close to the glass position. The front of the buttons is smooth, just like the ones that I make. I have also had extensive communications with one of the Archaeologists from Jamestown, and their glass buttons are exactly the same as the ones found at Popham.
A brief article on the Popham Colony. As a bonus, at the bottom of the page is a link to an amazing list of museum websites from all over the world. I haven’t been to all of them yet, but some of them are really awesome. The website with Popham artifact photos seems to have disappeared. Examples of some of the later period glass buttons found in the Virginia area. There is essentially no difference between these black glass buttons and the pre-1600 versions. Some have iron shanks and some have brass shanks, but the size range and form of the glass is the same.
Since I did my original research on pre-1600’s glass buttons, more and more of them are beginning to appear in the digitized libraries of museums and research organizations around the world. Great Britains’ Portable Antiquities Scheme now contains at least two glass buttons that are probably pre-1600. Here is a pale yellow glass button. And here is a bright blue glass button .
In case you are wondering what my version of black 1500’s glass buttons look like here is an entire page of different sized buttons. My Cobalt Blue glass buttons closely resemble the blue button in the Portable antiquities Scheme
I hope that you enjoyed this brief view of pre-1600’s glass buttons. Many people are familiar with Renaissance metal buttons, but little has been written about the glass buttons that were made and used during this time-frame.