Eighteenth Century Buttons

buttonby Jean Cascardi Archaeology Crew Chief

Archaeologists today rely heavily on one piece of academic work to interpret the frequency and finding of buttons on eighteenth century domestic sites. This work, written by Stephen Hinks in 1988, “A Structural and Functional Analysis of Eighteenth Century Buttons;” has been used by FCPA archaeologists on sites such as Colchester to interpret the button assemblage encountered through excavation. CART’s current excavation has yielded a fair number of buttons and is cursorily being interpreted as an eighteenth century domestic site. Once all the information is gathered and analyzed archaeologists will determine both the temporal period and function of the site.

It is probably no surprise to the reader that the button, much like many everyday objects, prolificness and use has changed over time. This is no doubt evidenced in the archaeological record, as well as historical documents that have survived. During the eighteenth century, men’s clothing utilized the button closure much more frequently than women’s clothing. Eighteenth century women’s clothing typically was laced or had hook and eye closures. Not only has the use of the button changed, but the manufacturing technique and material in which buttons are made from has changed over time. This change has led the button to be produced at a much higher rate than it was in the eighteenth century.

As mentioned above, it was eighteenth century men’s clothing in colonial America that most commonly used buttons. Hinks’ research compared not only four site assemblages, but also examined more than one merchants’ records. What Hinks’ found was that merchants of the day classified and inventoried their buttons much like an archaeologist would. The description entered into the merchants’ records included details pertaining to material type, color, decoration, and size; most often the merchant would include in their description the type of garment the button was for. When archaeologists are lucky enough to have these types of supporting documents to go along with an assemblage, we are able to infer more information about a specific site.

In the eighteenth century almost every piece of a man’s clothing utilized buttons. Dependent upon the piece of clothing the button used would have different attributes. Common men’s clothing items that used buttons in the eighteenth century were suits. Eighteenth century men’s suits included many similar pieces to today’s men’s suits; these are jackets or coats, vests or waistcoats, and a shirt. Pieces of the eighteenth century men’s suits that are not commonly worn today were the “breeches,” and the frock; the frock was a less formal piece of clothing than the jacket or coat. Other commonly worn pieces of eighteenth century clothing that would have buttons for closures were the great coat and a looser, informal item of clothing known as a banyan.

Button frequency differed on the various clothing pieces mentioned above. For example, the shirt worn with the eighteenth century suit was typically a pull over that utilized two smaller buttons at the collar and would most likely have two connected buttons at each sleeve cuff; unlike today’s suit shirt. Breeches, if you are not familiar with the term or article of clothing, were the common colonial pant that went to the knee or just below the knee. Where the breeches ended there typically would be a series of buttons or combination of buttons and a buckle to close the pant leg. Hinks’ notes that smaller buttons would have been used at the knee and larger buttons would have been used at the waist to close the article of clothing. The Colonial Williamsburg website provides brief descriptions of the different pieces of men’s clothing commonly worn in the eighteenth century, a link is provided below.


Article of Clothing Number of Buttons Size of Button
Banyan 6 Small
Breeches 7-10; 2-3 Small; Large
Coat/Frock 12-26 Medium
Great Coat 9 Large
Shirt 6 Small
Waistcoat/Vest 20 Small to Medium

Adapted from Hicks’ document and reproduction clothing sewing patterns for eighteenth century men’s clothing; approximate numbers      

Eighteenth century buttons were manufactured out of a variety of material including different types of metal, glass, wood, bone, and shell. When certain artifacts are deposited in the soil of northern Virginia they tend to begin the process of degradation almost immediately; organic materials such as bone, wood, and shell are affected by the acidity of the soils at a much faster rate than other materials such as metal, glass or ceramic. Overwhelmingly, the buttons FCPA archaeologists have collected from the current site have been brass buttons with soldered shanks. Pictured below are three examples of various sized buttons, the center button is iron.

References Cited and Further Reading

Anatomy of a Suit. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2016, from http://www.history.org/history/clothing/men/anatomymen.cfm

Adsummus, F. W. (n.d.). Wm. Booth, Draper – Everything for American Revolutionary War Reenactors. Retrieved December 20, 2016, from https://www.wmboothdraper.com/Buttons/indexwithnav.html?buttons_main.htm

A Colonial Gentlemen’s Clothing: A Glossary of Terms. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2016, from http://history.org/history/clothing/men/mglossary.cfm

Hinks, S. J., & University of South Carolina. (1900). A structural and functional analysis of eighteenth century buttons. Columbia S.C: South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Noël, H. I. (1970). A guide to artifacts of colonial America. New York: Knopf.

Introduction to Eighteenth-Century Clothing. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2016, from http://www.history.org/history/clothing/intro/index.cfm


About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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One Response to Eighteenth Century Buttons

  1. Pingback: More on Eighteenth Century Buttons | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

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