Buttons made from Fresh Water Mussels.
Photograph by Gary Andrashko, Illinois State Museum
Button-makers categorized buttons by types of holes, shape, size, and color. Finishers drilled two holes, four holes, or self-shank holes, or inserted a metal shank. Names like fisheye, ring fisheye, French bevel, English rim and cup described the various styles in which holes were drilled. The basic shapes of buttons were disc (two-hole and four-hole), ball (half-sphere), geometric (diamond, prism, square, rectangle, and parallelogram), and realistic (animals, flowers).
Sizing in the button trade uses the measure ligne, the traditional English and French measure that is still used today, along with inches and millimeters. One inch is equal to 40 English ligne, 11 French ligne, and 25.5 mm. The 12-18 ligne buttons were sold for trim, shirts, and children's dresses; 20-60 size for dresses, jackets and coats; shoe buttons were usually 14 ligne, and specialty buttons were usually 45-60 ligne.
Most pearl shell buttons
were natural (off-white) or smoked. In the nineteenth century, early attempts were made to dye buttons with aniline dyes in blue, green, pink, purple, and red, but the colors faded very rapidly. In 1913 new organic dyes were introduced, such as azobenzenes, in shades of red and yellow. Buttons were bleached about this time, too, in attempts to upgrade spotted shell and lower wastage.
Consumers could find pearl buttons at their local retailer and could order buttons by mail from catalogs. The 1902 Sears, Roebuck Catalog offered one column of pearl buttons, and one column that illustrated ivory-nut, metal, gilt, horn, agate, and mohair-covered buttons. All buttons were priced by the dozen in line (ligne) sizes. The styles of pearl buttons available at Sears were: white two-hole, half-ball, two- and four-hole shirt button, large carved, and fancy carved. Designs included English rim, rope-edge, spiral edge and concentric circles. Colors were white and smoked. Shirt buttons and ball buttons were also offered in an imported version that cost up to 150 percent of the domestic price (e.g., five cents per dozen for domestic 12 ligne ball buttons and eleven cents per dozen for Japanese
cat's eye ball buttons.