Saturday, April 10, 2021

Uncovering the History of Cuff Links

Although cuff links are still used today, they are typically not part of everyday attire.  Beginning in the 17th century changes in the tunics and shirts that men wore brought about the use of cuff links.  Prior to this time, shirts were held together by strings or ribbons.  Shirts were worn next to the skin and often under an over coat or cloak.  The visible parts of the shirt, namely the collar and cuffs, became places for ornamentation.  

Attribution: Auckland Museum, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During the 1600’s, tailors added stitched holes in the cuffs of shirts which enabled two small “buttons” attached by a chain link to close the cuffs and hold them in place.  These “sleeve” buttons or cuff links came in a variety of shapes and materials that were often a mark of status for the wearer and they were commonly used by members of the upper class as well as military officers.  As a result of general trends in design, the shape of the button can suggest a relative time period but not an exact date.  For example, octagonal shaped buttons were popular in the early part of the 18th century however, by about 1760 they were replaced by a round or oval shape.  

The shape of the link can also offer clues, from the late 1600’s through the first half of the 1700’s a flattened U-shape link was popular while the pyramid shape and circular eye shanks generally date to after the 1750’s.

As many of our followers are aware, The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Section of Archaeology has been conducting archaeological excavations at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park (36DA0159) in Dauphin County for 14 years. This was the location of a French and Indian War era fort in the 1750’s and evolved into the affluent estate of Mr. McAllister in the 1780s.  As mentioned previously, cuff links were and continue to be a status symbol generally worn by men of the upper class including military officers.  Perhaps it is not surprising that our excavations have recovered several impressive cuff links from either the Fort period and/or Mr. McAllister’s occupation. Currently, we are conducting a detailed analysis of these objects to refine their dating.  All the cuff links pictured in this blog were recovered during our excavations at Fort Hunter.  

Although they look like they could be emeralds, the above cuff link insets are made of glass.

Beautifully hand painted enamel decoration

We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of the small and often overlooked history of cuff links and some of the beautiful examples that have been recovered from our excavations.

We often use the expression “History is just beneath our feet.”  These small artifacts are examples of an object that many would perhaps overlook in the historic record and find insignificant, thus missing the larger picture of the people who wore these objects. Social status, consumer behavior and the tangible evidence of daily life are preserved in these artifacts. Preserving the archaeological record includes all evidence from the past and reflects our cultural heritage. Please help us in continuing to preserve and protect the archaeological record. 


White, Carolyn L.
2005 American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680-1820: A Guide to Identification and Interpretation AltaMira Press. Toronto

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

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