Friday, April 28, 2017

Items of Personal Adornment: How Small Objects Make a Big Impact

As archaeologists, we are often asked to describe the best or oldest artifact we have found. People want to see the nicest point or the complete pot. But sometimes the small and insignificant objects can also give us important information on the people who have come before us. Two such objects are buckles and buttons. These objects mean little to us in today’s world, other than as functional items to hold our clothing together, but in the 18th century buckles and buttons were symbols of wealth and status.

First we will look at buckles, which were the primary type of fastener for both shoes and clothing through most of the 18th century. Metal buckles were largely produced in England and exported to America to be sold, although a small number of buckles were made by local silversmiths and clockmakers. Buckle frames were made most commonly of copper alloys, tin, and gilded brass; however, they were also produced in silver, gold, iron, blued steel, Sheffield plate, pinchbeck (a form of brass resembling gold), and close-plated iron (silver foil plated), as well as being embellished with wood, glass accents, gems, and ceramic inlays. They could be found in a wide range of shapes and sizes, in an almost limitless range of designs and decorations. Buckles were worn by men, women, and children to secure knee breeches, girdles, spurs, boots/garters, hats, sword belts, stocks (a man’s neck cloth), and most commonly, shoes.

Iron Shoe Buckle with Scalloped Decoration (Photo by PHMC)

Buckles are commonly found on archaeological sites from the 18th century because they were so widely used by all ranks of society. In addition to being a way to hold together clothing and shoes, buckles were considered to make an important fashion statement. Social status can be noted in the type of material and extent of decoration on buckles, with more expensive metals and ornate decorations being attributed to the wealthy. Portraits of the time period, which could normally only be commissioned by the rich, show large and ornate buckles on the shoes, knee buckles holding the breeches to silk stockings, and luxurious textiles decorated with expensive buttons.

Portrait of Maryland Governor William Paca, Showing Shoe and Knee Buckles and Cloth Covered Buttons from Maryland State Art Collection, Maryland State Archives  (

(Top row left to right:) Brass Stock Buckle Fragment, Knee Buckle, Brass Buckle Roll, Brass Buckle Tongue; (Bottom row:) Plain and Fancy Brass Buckle Frame Fragments (Photo by PHMC)

Account books from the late 1700s from two stores in Pennsylvania indicate the difference in price between ornate buckles and more ordinary buckles. A pair of “plated buckles” sold for £0-3-5, while a pair of “Silver Diamond Cut Shoe Buckles” was bought for £2-15-0. In a time period of constant change, especially during and after the Revolutionary War, when different forms of currency were used, buckles could also be exchanged for goods and services as a form of money.

By the end of the 18th century, buckles were beginning to go out of style in America and would be replaced by ribbons and shoe strings in the early 19th century.

Another small item that can provide information when found on archaeological sites is the button. As with buckles, buttons served as clothing fasteners and as a fashionable form of personal adornment through the 18th century. Buttons were used as early as the 12th-14th centuries but did not become common until the 16th century. Again as with buckles, most buttons were produced in England and exported to America. Buttons were made of numerous materials including various metals, ivory, pearl, conk shell, wood, bone, inlaid glass, horn, porcelain, leather, stone, and tortoise shell.

Examples of 18th Century Buttons: (Left to right:) Shell, Wood, Brass, Gilt Tombac Crown, Tombac, Brass, Silver-plated Copper (Photo by PHMC)

 In the 18th century, buttons were worn primarily by men on their breeches, coats and waistcoats, sleeves, cloaks, stocks, and handkerchiefs. Women would begin using buttons more commonly in the 19th century. Types of material and quantities of buttons on a man’s outfit could indicate social status. Buttons were purchased separately from the garment and added on later, so personal taste could dictate how the garment was decorated. A wealthy gentleman may have purchased large quantities of expensive metal, bejeweled, or thread or cloth-wrapped buttons to line his coat and waistcoat, while a poorer man may have settled for a few pewter buttons. Along with expensive cloth and buckles, buttons were a visible expression of wealth for a man in the 18th century. Buttons were also utilized by the military as a form of decoration on the uniform but also to identify the service branch and often the regimental designation. 

(Left to right:) Brass Stamped , Crown with Floral Design, Flat Pewter with Floral Design, Shell Crown with Brass Shank , Glass Inset Sleeve Button, Brass Sleeve Button Marked “1773”, Octagonal Brass Sleeve Button (Photo by PHMC)

 Buttons can often be dated by type of manufacture. Early buttons produced between 1700 and 1760 were cast as one piece with the eye drilled out afterward. Later, the shank was added by attaching or soldering to the back of the button. This process altered over time and is traceable, allowing the button type to be dated. Because buttons are very often recovered archaeologically, this can assist in the dating of a site.

Types of Button Shanks: (Left to right:) Cast and Drilled Shank, Cone Shank, and Alpha Shank (Photo by PHMC)

 With changing fashions and styles, buckles would pass out of high fashion by the mid-19th century and today are used mainly as belt fasteners. Buttons, although still in use, are no longer indicators of wealth or status. The advent of the zipper and the use of plastic buttons on pre-made garments have relegated the button to the simple status of a closure. Today’s fashions are ruled not so much by quality of materials and decorative embellishments, but by brand label and celebrity endorsement. So, we can see the importance of finding these types of artifacts on historic archaeological sites.

18th Century Gentleman with Spur Buckles, Fancy Coat Buttons, and Knee and Waistcoat Buttons (Photo by PHMC)

Hopefully, this has given our readers a new respect for some of our smaller and less visually exciting artifacts. To the archaeologist, all artifacts are significant in some way for what they can tell us about a site - and buckles and buttons have their own stories to tell…

Hume, Ivor Noel
1970   A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.

Maryland State Archives
2017   Maryland State Art Collection website. Maryland State Archives, Found at

White, Carolyn L.
2005   American Artifacts of Personal Adornment; 1680-1820. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, MD.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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