17th September 2021

Composition Buttons

Composition buttons are those made up, like  a pudding, of a mixture of ingredients.

Composition buttons were mentioned in Australian print from 1865 until the late 1940s. The term was originally used for early attempts at cellulose based buttons, as seen in the following article, although later it just referred to any unspecified plastic mixture.

Northern Argus (Clare, SA), 8th July 1892 page 3. I think the writer meant ‘guncotton’  which was a name for nitrocellulose.

Note: Parkesine, the first nitro-cellulose based plastic, was patented by Alexander Parkes in 1856 and exhibited in 1862. It did not turn out to be a commercially viable product. Then celluloid was invented in 1865 by  American John Wesely Wyatt. Later in 1891 Rayon was also developed from cellulose. These early plastics could indeed be quite flammable!

The Bendigo Independent (Vic), 22nd October 1901 page 2. The exhibition referred to was for Bendigo’s Gold Jubilee. The buttons would have been pin-back type celluloid souvenirs.

Punch (Melbourne), 23rd November 1905 page 34.

The Age (Melbourne), 15th December 1906 page 19.

Australian Women’s Weekly, 3rd August 1940. Here composition refers to casein and other plastics.


Composition buttons include, as mentioned yesterday, some apparently wooden buttons. These were produced in several eras; the second half of the 19th century, the 1920s and the 1950s, and consisted of wood pulp, fillers and pigments.

Burwood/Syroco wood composition buttons c.1920

Some ‘hard rubber’ buttons are really composition, as are all gutta percha buttons, for gutta percha (from the sap of Malaysian trees) was never used on its own. Early phenol/bakelite buttons were also composition, as they included fillers such as wood fibre or even asbestos to make the material lighter.

The Albany Advertiser (WA), 17th October 1935. Note that the term ‘plastic’ here means ‘malleable’.



16th September 2021

Wooden Buttons

Wood is one of those material, like shell, bone and ceramics,  have been used for centuries (or longer) for utility fastenings. Wooden and bone moulds have formed the basis of covered buttons, from the most pedestrian to highly worked passementerie items, and even for uniform buttons covered with metal shells.In the 1840 Penny magazine Charles Dickens wrote:

“Button moulds are generally oak, beech, elder dyed black with nutgalls or similar dye. They are covered with threads of gold, silver, silk or other costly materials. several women sat around a table, each having a large needle fixed in the table opposite the part where she was seated – also a bobbin or reel containing the thread which she was to use. The mould was held by the hole in center upon the needle; the end of golden or other thread was at the same time put thru the hole and fixed. The thread was wound over and around every part of the mould in a peculiar way, so as to present everywhere a surface of thread ans also a determinate pattern, according to the fashion of the day. When finished the thread was secured and at the back of the button, folds of thread were taken up and tied together, so as to form a shank for fixing the button to the garment.”

Button moulds were shipped in to Australian colonies at the turn of the 19th century, if not before. Part of a shipment of goods from 1850 is listed below:

Sydney Morning Herald, 25th October 1850, page 4.

Wooden buttons were always in use, particularly on coats, even when not the latest fashion.

Weekly Times (Melbourne), 25th October 1884 page 6. An early, wooden set of  realistic buttons!

The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil (Melbourne), 5th May 1886 page 71.

Weekly Times (Melbourne), 1st May 1886 page 6. From “Hints for Mothers”.

Wood has been turned, carved, polish, stained, and painted. Designs have been burnt (pyrography), pressed, inlayed (intarsia) and formed by marquetry. During the Art Deco period, layers of different colours were laminated and then sliced across. Also wood was combined with metal in geometric forms. Wood has even been the base for composition buttons, where wood pulp was combined with fillers and binders then moulded. Of course, arts and crafts practitioners have used wood to make small quantities of buttons, both professionally and as a hobby.


Lovely painted wooden buttons c.1938

Many articles appeared in print describing ways to decorate your own wooden buttons at home.

Sunday Times (Perth), 10th February 1935 page 3. The effect of the Great Depression resulted in an increase in the use of wooden buttons, both as above, and also crafted from native woods and nuts.

The Australian Women’s Weekly, 1st June 1935 page 22.



15th September 2021

Glass Buttons

Glass inserts for metal buttons were made from the 1760s in the area now known as the Czech Republic. Later the ability to add metal shanks to glass buttons was developed. By the 1820s the trade was well established and by the mid 19th century had spread across Europe. In the 1870s Czech glass buttons were hand painted in large numbers, and were exported in huge quantities, although this was interrupted by the World Wars. After WW2 the ethnic German glass makers were summarily deported from their homes in the new Czech Republic, with a new industry rising phoenix like in Western Germany from these deported craftsmen. German glass buttons were exported in large quantities until competition from cheaper plastic substitutes caused a  major decline during the 1960s. In the meantime, the remaining glass button industry under communist control was limited to simple, lower quality items for local consumption only. After the break-up of the Soviet Bloc, international trade resumed with beautiful new buttons from vintage moulds being produced.

The Sun (Sydney), 15th October 1936 page 6.

Glass buttons have been made in clear, coloured and black. They have been blown, moulded and lampworked. They were faceted, etched, pressed, painted, inset, used as imitation jewels and constructed into mosaics. Myriad finishes and construction techniques have been used.

See also http://www.austbuttonhistory.com/its-un-australian/the-wide-world-of-manufacturers/#CZECHOSLAVAKIA

The only commercial Australian glass button maker was Grant Featherston He hand made glass buttons from 1946-1954. If you know of any other Australian glass button makers, contact me!


14th September 2021

Ceramic Buttons

Ceramic is a term for all types of shaped and fired materials made from clay and other substances. Ceramics are subdivided , somewhat but not completely artificially, according to the materials used, the temperature to which they are fired, and their resultant appearance. Many famous ceramic/pottery firms included a range of buttons in their output.

The least hard /most breakable is referred to as earthernware. It may contain clay, quartz, kaolin and felspar. It is fired at low temperatures (1000-1150°C). The porous result requires glazing then refiring to be waterproof. Some very collectable buttons, including Satsumas from Japan, and Norfolk from America are classed as earthernware.

The next ‘grade’ of ceramic is known, due to its fired appearance, as stoneware. It is denser but still porous and is fired at 1000-1300°C. Hand-made stonewear buttons are made and advertised by potters on Etsy. They would be lovely for hand-knits or quilting. The famous jasperware plaques of Wedgewood, mounted in metal as buttons, are classed as stonewear.

Higher grade stoneware is referred to as porcelain. With the addition of powdered bone ash (which makes it less prone to chipping) it is called bone china. This is fired at high temperatures (1200-1450°C) and results in beautiful, translucent white ceramic. Fine china/porcelain buttons have been made since the late 18th century (as early as 1760) and their production spread across Europe within decades. The French in particular produced a lot of porcelain buttons. The small china “stencils” and “calicos” of the 20th century are porcelain.

ALA, Sydney

Austrian born Anna Louise Alma who had moved to Sydney designed and made buttons. Her buttons were sold between 1947 to around 1957 in the ALA shop in Rowe Street.

Marie Gardner, Sydney

Marie ran her pottery from 1947 and produced commercial quantities of stoneware buttons of around 12 different designs but with multiple glazed finishes.

The Sunday Herald (Sydney), 26th July 1953 page 22.

South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus (NSW), 21st December 1950 page 2.


13th September 2021

Metal Buttons

As far as I know, the only metal buttons made in quantity in Australia were uniform buttons, made by die-sinkers, medal and badge makers such as Stokes and Sons, Amor, A. J. Parkes and Sheridan, etc. These buttons have been made of copper, brass, white metal*, anodised** aluminium, and they have been gilt and silver-plated. A smaller quantity of fashion buttons were made by jewellers in metals such as gold and silver. These were often given as gifts in boxed sets.


* White metal is a descriptive term that can include alloys of antimony, tin, lead, cadmium, bismuth, and zinc. In Stokes case, it was probably nickle-silver, as the company quoted using this for some of its buttons.

**Anodising is a process of using electricity to  form a corrosion resistant outer layer that can allow colouring.

A bewildering list of metals/alloys have been used throughout history to make or decorate buttons with. Some passed out of favour quickly, as the quality of button produced was not high. These include:

  • Aluminium. Used in Australia for uniform buttons from 1953.
  • Biddery. Used in India. An alloy of copper, zinc, lead and sometimes tin. Like pewter in appearance.
  • Brass.  An alloy of copper and zinc.
  • Britannia. An alloy of tin and antimony used in the 18th century in Britain. Similar in appearance to hard pewter.
  • Copper.
  • Gold. Most commonly as a plating (gilding).
  • Iron. Usually painted, lacquered or tinned.
  • Pinchbeck. Used in the 19th century. An alloy of copper and zinc used as a cheap gold substitute.
  • Pewter. An alloy of tin, antimony, bismuth, copper, sometimes silver, and in the past , lead. It was in common use in the late 17th to 18th centuries until replaced for the most part by the use of brass.
  • Plumbago. An alloy containing mostly lead. Used in the late 19th to early 20th century.
  • Semilor. Used in the 19th century, as a cheap gold substitute. A  yellowish alloy of zinc and copper.
  • Silver. Solid or as a coating.
  • Steel. Iron with a small proportion of carbon.
  • Tin. Mostly used  as a coating to prevent rusting, also for decoration (e.g. ‘crystallised’ tin).
  • Tombac. Used in the 18th century. An alloy of copper and zinc with a soft grey-white-yellow gleam.
  • Zinc. Mostly used in alloys, but has been used for button making as rolled or sheet zinc with a protective coating against corrosion, also as rims or liners on buttons.


  • The Telegraph (Brisbane), 21st July 1894 page 7.

Crookwell Gazette (NSW), 16th May 1911 page 4.

The World’s News (Sydney), 19th July 1933 page 2.

12th September 2021

Large Button on Vintage Fashions

Nothing subtle about these four-leaf clovers!

The Australian Woman’s Mirror 7th September 1937 page 6.

Just look at the size of the realistic flower buttons on the bodice!

The Home: an Australian Quarterly, 1st September 1942 page 46.

The 3 buttons in detail.

A little more modern …

Australian Women’s Weekly, 17th April 1963 page 4.


11th September 2021

New Find: University of Sydney

No backmark. Brass with copper fixed shank.

Whilst this bears the Coat of Arms of Sydney Univeristy, I wonder if it was used by the Sydney University Regiment, as I have seen badges but not buttons for this regiment?


Some Good (?) Ideas

The Manning River Times and Advocate for the Northern Coast Districts of New South Wales, 12 August 1950 page 8. Personally, I do not want to spoil my buttons this way!

The Star (Sydney), 22nd May 1909 page 27.



10th September 2021

Buttons and social history.

It continues to amaze me how such everyday items can throw a light on  social/historical issues.

Examiner (Launceston), 30th May 1904 page 5.

Evening News (Sydney), 28th September 1912 page 14. It seems the people were not impressed with being fobbed off with cheap and nasty buttons.

The term Kaffir is of Arabic origin, and was coined by traveller and writer Leo Africanus around 1527. He described the ‘Cafri’ as an ethnic group from Southern Africa. During colonial times the term was equivalent of ‘negro’. By the mid 20th century it was considered a racial slur.

On a lighter note …

Voice (Hobart), 29th August 1953 page 1.


9th September 2021

New Finds

NSW Military Forces 1880-1901 pattern.

Backmark: Stokes & Sons. Like the ‘Stokes & Martin’ version, it has 5 point instead of the correct 8 point stars.

NSW State badge. Note the 8 point stars.










This button is also found with a Stokes & Martin backmark (see Pre Federation page) which dates from 1880-1893. The Stokes & Sons version date from 1893-1901.



Both these cards were sold by Woolworths.

1950s and 1970s



Late 1950s-early 1960s

8th September 2021

Sample cards

Grandway buttons for Big W and Woolworths stores, 1980s-94.

The top Dymo label says ‘Grandway’. On the back of one of the cards.

Below are photos of the 4 cards, then close ups of the buttons. There are many familiar designs from earlier decades.