Metal Buttons and Shanks

by Lily FischerArchaeological Field and Lab Intern

Within Colonial archaeological sites, the most common type of button found is the metal button. Due, in large part, to metal’s ability to withstand decomposition in the acidic eastern soils, these buttons survive unlike their bone and cloth counter parts. For the most part, metal buttons are usually attached by a shank located on the back of a button. Though the shank is not the most ascetically pleasing aspect of a button, its shape and type can help archaeologists identify buttons found in the field.

A shank is a piece of metal on the back of the button that forms, or has, an opening through which string is threaded in order to attach a button to something, such as an article of clothing. One of the earliest shanks of the past is the cast shank. A cast shank is made by including the shank along with the rest of the button during casting (when liquid metal is poured into a mold). This process creates a visible seam which helps identify the button as a cast button. Cast Buttons came into prominence during the 18th century. They started out as mainly pewter, which is an alloy of tin, copper, antimony, and lead which is a metal that is easy to cast but weak (Hinks 60). However, around 1720 brass foundries appeared and the previously expensive metal became cheaper and available for public use. It resulted in many buttons being cast in brass instead of pewter (Hinks 57-58). Through industry development and improved techniques, the more durable brass button rivaled pewter buttons by the mid-18th century and remains a common button for archaeologist to dig up today.

Soldering is another common method of shank attachment on brass buttons. This is when a button and shank are made separately then welded or fused together to create one button. Brass buttons that employed a soldered shank were often flat and disk-like with many stamped, engraved, or plated (see image) with gold and or silver. Soldered shank brass buttons were very common in the late-18th century and are another frequent type that archaeologists continue to find.

For more information on metal buttons see Eighteenth Century Buttons and More on Eighteenth Century Buttons

References

DAACS Cataloging Manual: Buttons. 2003. Electronic Document, http://www.daacs.org/wp-content/uploads/buttons.pdf, accessed July 20, 2018.

Hinks, Stephen. 1998. A Structural and Functional Analysis of Eighteenth Century Buttons. Master’s Thesis, Department of Anthropology, the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg.

Hume, Ivor Noël. 1969   A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York

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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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