Chapter 8: China Stencil Designs

Part 1: Catalogue of China Stencils

Guidelines provides a descriptive definition of stencil buttons “so that all readers will understand precisely what buttons are included in this catalogue–and why these and no others.” I have rephrased except as quoted below.


These buttons are known to us as “stencils”; some of the patterns were actually created using a stencil, others obviously were hand decorated. The conclusion is then, that “stencil” signifies a style and not a technique.


Stencil patterns are medallion-like, the design created to fit the button as a single unit, in a single color.


Most commonly a stencil button is either white or cream. Only two of the thirty-one patterns are found on a different colored body, either black or orange.


Round is the most common shape with three patterns decorating a modified square shape. The top of the button is slightly convex with a mostly flat back. “The top has no molding whatsoever except that is required by the holes.” This comment is important because often collectors mistakenly include a molded top fish eye button with color inside the molded area.


There are always two holes enclosed in either a fisheye, oval-eye or boxed oval-eye well.


The majority of stencils are NBS size small, with modified squares sometimes measuring as mediums. NBS diminutive sizes are rare.


Colors listed are: black, red, orange, lavender, light blue, dark blue, light green, dark green, light brown, dark brown, deep lavender, pink and yellow. Metallic lusters are mentioned in the text.


Guidelines says:

“One of the very most important distinguishing characteristics cannot be described–the look and feel of the china itself. These buttons have a body quite different from that of the calicoes, but only actual comparison of the buttons will show what the difference is.”

Part 2: Stencil Patterns Tabulated

Guidelines pages 143 – 148 show drawings of stencil patterns and a description of body types, colors and sizes for each. Clicking the link will initiate the download of a pdf of these pages. The text indicates which patterns are common and which are scarce. Short version: #2, #5, #13, #19, and #30 are hard to find. #7 is also less common. Guidelines mentions that only one example of #26 has been recorded. #31 is questionable as a stencil pattern and all numbers above #31 are quite rare. Occasionally examples of similarly decorated buttons are found, these two originating in the Czech Republic. A newer sample card of stencils is shown below. The hyphenated “CZECHO-SLOVAKIA” (cut off from the bottom of the card in this scan) and the telephone number help date the popularity of these buttons to the years between 1918 and 1930. Collectors also found a large quantity of stencil buttons in craft stores as late as the early 1990’s, sold under the Jesse James “Dress-It-Up” brand. These could be purchased in small mixed packages or ordered directly from the company by the gross. In reply to an inquiry, they stated that they had found large bags of the buttons in a Czech Republic warehouse. All of the patterns were on cream bodied fisheye buttons. The pattern #29, the face pattern, had previously been rather scarce. As another indication of the relatively late production of these buttons, stencils could be purchased in at least one shop in New York City in 2002.

A Concluding Comment

The quote from Guidelines above, regarding the ceramic body of stencil buttons differing from that of calicos, is interesting in light of relatively recent discoveries. We have learned that many of our documented later china buttons, and particularly the stencil buttons, were manufactured from materials more commonly used in the production of glass buttons, rather than in ceramic button manufacture. Glasslike buttons remain in our china button classification as china type buttons, reflecting National Button Society’s decision to group together china and china type (having characteristics of known china buttons) buttons.

Author: Frankie Winters

I'm a Designer, Maker, and Developer in Portland, Oregon. I have two little girls and keep a meticulously organized garage.

5 thoughts on “Chapter 8: China Stencil Designs”

  1. Janet, you are a treasure to us who also love chinas. Thank you so very much for compiling such great information. I appreciate you!!!

  2. Love your china blog. I’ve been back to sorting and listing china buttons recently and will now give up on finding #26! Thanks for all the great information, and Happy Birthday! Gloria

  3. I was searching the web for information on stencils and other chinas when I came upon this site. I am very excited about the wealth of information here. I am appreciative also, as Linda said. Thank you for your research and clear presentation!

    1. Chinas might be your thing also, Kathy? I appreciate the feedback and am happy to answer any further questions you might have. Looking forward to adding to the site in the future.

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