Monday, 8 February 2016

Vintage Buttons

I sorted these buttons out to take to a 'show and tell' at the local Heritage Centre, unfortunately I couldn't make it on the day. I had done some additional research for the event and thought it interesting so am sharing it here.

I love vintage buttons and have quite a collection. I do use them and have been known to make a garment to use a particular button! However, I saw these on a stall at Diss Market in the earlier 90s when I was writing a chemistry textbook for GCSE pupils. Not that I needed an excuse but they would definitely put the section on early plastics in to context.


I knew the buttons were made from protein in milk. Initially they were used as a substitute for horn buttons. This card is probably a shop sample as the four digit numbers a re not dates but product codes.
It is possible to make plastic from milk and I have done this with pupils, but it was a French Chemist Auguste Trillat, in 1893, who moved the process forwards by stabilising the plastic by immersing it in formaldehyde - a well known preservative of the time. This improved plastic was odourless and insoluble. It was also was much firmer and could be cut, drilled, embossed and also dyed.
In the UK this plastic was called Erinoid and it seems that buttons were manufactured in a disused woollen mill near Stroud.
Many Art Deco buttons are made from Erinoid - these from my collection seem to be Erinoid.

 I just love the detail of them.

All was going well with the Erinoid production, but clearly a lot of milk was needed. I can't find any figures for this country but in Germany where Galalith seemed to have the name for buttons 30 million litres a year were used in 1913!
With the outbreak of war milk was clearly needed for food and this type of button industry could not continue.
This indicates that my Art Deco plastic buttons are probably pre First World War!
However, It seems that Brazil was still making buttons from milk into the 1960s.
I have other Art Deco buttons that are made of glass, are they just better quality or did glass supersede Erinoid plastic buttons. More research needed.

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