3rd October 2020

Photographic Buttons

According to an article in the August 1951 Just Buttons magazine, produced in America, various early photographic processes were used to make buttons; particularly daguerreotypes (named after its inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839) and the ferrotype, also known as tintype (invented in 1884 by Robert Hunt, or alternatively by Hamilton L. Smith). Tintypes were much easier to produce, but did not wear well. “It became a fad for the men going off to (the Civil) war to have a row of these buttons, containing pictures of their wives, babies, or sweethearts on their waistcoats, and many a mother’s portrait went to war in this manner or else graced the lapel of her soldier boy’s coat. Soon after ladies took up the hobby and had their basques and dresses adorned with full length rows of these picture buttons – often of their war heroes or some friend or relation.” The tintype images were produced in a sheet of multiple images, then cut and shaped to be placed in button frames, often with a tin back and brass rim. Most were small, around 10-20mm, but occasionally larger examples are found, perhaps made as souvenirs at carnivals and holiday resorts. 

This story appeared in various newspapers between 1898 to 1900. If true, it looks like the fashion for photographic buttons of sweethearts was not just confined to the civil war era.

The Telegraph (Brisbane), 4th January 1908 page 5. It is not clear whether these are pinbacks or shanked.

Tintypes were used from 1860 to make politicians’ campaign medallions and lapel pins. From 1868 photographs of candidates backed by cardboard replaced tintypes as this was faster and cheaper although even less durable than the tintypes. In 1896 the celluloid pin-back (badge) button was introduced. This kind of  patriotic “button” was made and sold in large quantities in Australia for fundraising throughout World War 1 and beyond. The use of the word button to refer to pin-back fundraising buttons has made it confusing for me to investigate if there were photographic buttons made in Australia, but I think the answer is yes, as it offered another opportunity for photographers to make sales.

Kalgoorie Miner (WA), 16th June 1906 page 6. (Note: a ‘cabinet’ was a larger version of the ‘cart-de-visit’. Both were photos mounted on cards.)

The Sun (Kalgoorie WA), 10th May 1908 page 7.

West Gippsland Gazette (Vic), 27th December 1910. From a story describing 3 dandies in Paris “a few years ago”. How bizarre.

Observer (Adelaide), 17th July 1920. Were the ‘photograph buttons’ on sale at Foy & Gibson shank buttons or pinbacks?

A photograph of a man playing bowls. Probably part of a set of waistcoat buttons.

For comparison: The pinback buttons

From the Collection of
Kew Historical Society Inc . 1958.

Evening News (Sydney), 30th May 1908 page 13.

Toowoomba Chronicle (Qld), 28th December 1918 page 10.


Turning things upsidedown: buttons as the camera!

Chronicle (Adelaide), 17th February 1938 page 48.