Button (Fr. bouton, O. Fr. boton, apparently from the same root as bouter, to push), a small piece of metal or other material which, pushed through a loop or button-hole, serves as a catch between different parts of a garment, etc. The word is also used of other objects which have a projecting knob-like character, e.g. button-mushrooms, the button of an electric bell-push, or the guard at the tip of a fencing foil; or which resemble a button in size and shape, as the button of metal obtained in assaying operations. At first buttons were apparently used for purposes of ornamentation; in Piers Plowman (1377) mention is made of a knife with "botones ouergylte," and in Lord Berner's translation of Froissart's Chronicles (1525) of a book covered with crimson velvet with "ten botons of syluer and gylte." While this use has continued, especially in connexion with women's dress, they began to be employed as fastenings at least as early as the 15th century. As a term of comparison for something trivial or worthless, the word is found in the 14th century.
Buttons of distinctive colour or pattern, or bearing a portrait or motto, are often worn, especially in the United States, as a decoration, or sign of membership of a society or of adherence to a political party; among the most honoured of such buttons are those worn by members of the military order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, organized in 1865 by officers who had fought in the Civil War. Chinese officials wear a button or knob on their hats as a mark of rank, the grade being denoted by its colour and material (see Mandarin).
Many varieties of buttons are used on clothing, but they may be divided into two main classes according to the arrangement by which they are attached to the garment; in one class they are provided with a shank which may consist of a metal loop or of a tuft of cloth or similar material, while in the other they are pierced with holes through which are passed threads. To these two classes roughly correspond two broad differences in the method of manufacture, according as the buttons are composite and made up of two or more pieces, or are simply shaped disks of a single material; some composite buttons, however, are provided with holes, and simple metal buttons sometimes have metal shanks soldered or riveted on them. From an early period buttons of the former kind were made by needlework with the aid of a mould or former, but about 1807 B. Sanders, a Dane who had been ruined by the bombardment of Copenhagen, introduced an improved method of manufacturing them at Birmingham. His buttons were formed of two disks of metal locked together by having their edges turned back on each other and enclosing a filling of cloth or pasteboard; and by methods of this kind, carried out by elaborate automatic machinery, buttons are readily produced, presenting faces of silk, mohair, brocade or other material required to harmonize with the fabric on which they are used.
Sanders's buttons at first had metal shanks, but about 1825 his son invented flexible shanks of canvas or other substance through which the needle could pass freely in any direction. The mechanical manufacture of covered buttons was started in the United States in 1827 by Samuel Williston, of Easthampton, Mass., who in 1834 joined forces with Joel and Josiah Hayden, of Haydenville.
The number of materials that have been used for making buttons is very large - metals such as brass and iron for the cheaper kinds, and for more expensive ones, gold and silver, sometimes ornamented with jewels, filigree work, etc.; ivory, horn, bone and mother-of-pearl or other nacreous products of shell-fish; vegetable ivory and wood; glass, porcelain, paper, celluloid and artificial compositions; and even the casein of milk, and blood. Brass buttons were made at Birmingham in 1689, and in the following century the metal button industry underwent considerable development in that city. Matthew Boulton the elder, about 1745, introduced great improvements in the processes of manufacture, and when his son started the Soho works in 1767 one of the departments was devoted to the production of steel buttons with facets, some of which sold for 140 guineas a gross. Gilt buttons also came into fashion about the same period. In this "Augustan age" of the Birmingham button industry, when there was a large export trade, the profits of manufacturers who worked on only a modest scale amounted to £3000 and £4000 a year, and workmen earned from £2 to £4 a week.
At one time the buttons had each to be fashioned separately by skilled artisans, but gradually the cost of production was lessened by the adoption of mechanical processes, and instead of being turned out singly and engraved or otherwise ornamented by hand, they came to be stamped out in dies which at once shape them and impress them with the desired pattern. Ivory buttons are among the oldest of all. Horn buttons were made at Birmingham at least by 1777; towards the middle of the igth century Emile Bassot invented a widely-used process for producing them from the hoofs of cattle, which were softened by boiling. Pearl buttons are made from pearl oyster shells obtained from various parts of the world, and after being cut out by tubular drills are shaped and polished by machinery. Buttons of vegetable ivory can be readily dyed. Glass buttons are especially made in Bohemia, as also are those of porcelain, which were invented about 1840 by an Englishman, R. Prosser of Birmingham. In the United States few buttons were made until the beginning of the 19th century, when the manufacture of metal buttons was started at Waterbury, Conn., which is now the centre of that industry. In 1812 Aaron Benedict began to make ivory and horn buttons at the same place.
Buttons of vegetable ivory, now one of the most important branches of the American button industry, were first made at Leeds, Mass., in 1859 by an Englishman, A.W. Critchlow, and in 1875 commercial success was attained in the production of composition buttons at Springfield, Mass. Pearl buttons were made on a small scale in 1855, but their manufacture received an enormous impetus in the last decade of the 19th century, when J.F. Boepple began, at Muscatine, Iowa, to utilize the unio or "niggerhead" shells found along the Mississippi. By 1905 the annual output of these "fresh-water pearl" buttons had reached 11,405,723 gross, worth $3,359,167, or 36.6% of the total value of the buttons produced in the United States. In the same year the mother-of-pearl buttons ("ocean pearl buttons") numbered 1,737,830 gross, worth $1,511,107, and the two kinds together constituted 44% of the number, and 53.9% of the value, of the button manufactures of the United States. (See U.S.A. Census Reports, 1900, Manufactures, part iii. pp. 315-327.)