The Gallery’s special collection of over 100,000 buttons was purchased in 2004 from Gillian and Alan Meredith and contains buttons of every shape, size, colour and material, mainly dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Large, geometric, hand-made ‘dandy’ buttons adorned the coats of men in the late 1700’s and were used not only to reflect the gentlemen’s status but also, perhaps, to attract admiring females!
In the late 18th century, men’s best coats were made to glitter and sparkle yet diamond buttons were expensive, so steel was cut and polished to use instead.
Buttons often tell a story and in 1789 when King George III recovered after a long spell of illness, patriotic silver-plated, copper buttons were made in Sheffield and emblazoned with the phrase ‘Long Live The King’.
In the early 19th century, it was the fashion to wear dresses of white cotton muslin with dainty white buttons as fasteners. The fiddly job of sewing the buttons was done entirely by hand by the women and children who lived in the villages around Dorset.
Buttons were sometimes made from moulded animal horn, a process developed commercially in the 1840’s in Worcestershire. Horn from the hooves of cows was boiled until soft, cut into basic shapes, pressed into moulds and steamed. The buttons were then polished and ready to be used.
The Rothschild family were wealthy bankers who settled in England. After being made a Baron in the UK peerage, Nathaniel Mayer Rothschild dressed the servants in new liveries with brightly shining buttons embossed with the family’s coat of arms. This would proclaim to all the status and importance of their masters.
In 1936, three novelty ‘stamp’ buttons were produced showing the head of Edward VIII, who abdicated in1936 before he was crowned King. These were probably made as souvenirs for a coronation that never took place.
Union Jack buttons were made and sold in the summer of 1937 to celebrate the coronation of King George VI. By adding these buttons to garments, wearers would feel part of the national celebrations.
The Second World War RAF uniform buttons hid a secret, as their hollow tops unscrewed to reveal a tiny compass, used by soldiers as a navigation aid if they landed in enemy territory.
Before men had zips in their trousers, they depended on buttons to hold them up. Cheap metal buttons that were used had sharp edges and could cut the sewing thread and cause the trousers to fall down.
One of the world’s most admired ceramic artists, Lucie Rie, turned her hand to button making in England in the last 1940s after being unable to find work. After the war, Lucie returned to her pottery making and became a greatly admired and in demand artist.
In the 1950’s Dublin brewers Guinness ran a highly successful poster campaign, entitled ‘My Goodness, My Guinness’. This was so popular that special brass, glass and plastic buttons were made, to be worn by barmen, embossed with images from the campaign.
In 1994, UK sculptor Paul Wood took his trade to buttons and carved grotesque faces into oak, walnut and yew for the customer who wanted something truly unique.
Buttons are often storytellers and over the years buttons have been made to reflect some of the world’s most famous tales from cast metal Aesop’s Fables buttons (1880 – 1900) to wooden Snow White and the Seven Dwarves buttons (1937 – 1940).