Chapter 2: China Buttons with Complex Construction

Chapter two begins with an explanation of the system devised by Lamm and Schuler to provide uniform labeling for all china buttons. The system is used throughout the text, where appropriate.

They first assigned a name to each body type and displayed each variation that they found in that one body type. Throughout the text, buttons of all types are labeled as follows: “A” refers to an opaque white button; “B” denotes color trim on white body; “C” is a lustered body; “D” is an opaque body color other than white; “E” represents color trim on a colored body; “F” is marbled; “G” indicates a metal rim on the button. A lower case letter, “a” through “m” is assigned to each decorative pattern found on china buttons. Of course, not every button has been found in all of the possible treatments. To illustrate the system, the photos show examples of dish type buttons, labeled according to Lamm and Shuler's system.

PART 1: Gaiter Buttons

Gaiters are found in nine shapes. The method of shank attachment is shown in Plate 9 and the profile of each body type in Plate 10.

  1. Dome
  2. Cone
  3. Hobnail
  4. Shape 4
  5. Ball
  6. Aspirin
  7. Shape 7
  8. Shape 8
  9. Shape 9 (Scallop)

The photo below shows an example of each body type. In a row below the nine shapes are two variations: a dome shape with tan center and a spatter pattern dome.

Shape 1, the dome button, is found in 15 different patterns of a round center, bands, and borders. (There are rumors of a 16th pattern also.) These are aptly named Bull’s-Eye Gaiters. The body color is white, although dark colored bodies with a pattern in gold have been found. It is most difficult to distinguish between patterns 9 and 10 and 14 and 15. Pattern numbers 13, 14 and 15 are the most difficult to find. Colors are black, light and dark blue, brown, burgundy, green, orange, green and purple.

And here is an unusual dark blue bodied dome shape with a pattern #10 decoration in gold luster, found in France.

Shape # 2, the Cone, can be found in solid colors and lusters. One pattern is found: a solid colored tip with a contrasting band around the wider base o the button.

Shape #3, the Hobnail Gaiter button, quoting from Guidelines, “gets its name from a hobnail band that separates a smooth rim from a round boss which rises up to form the center of the button. The patterns are built up entirely in terms of those three parts, boss, hobnail and rim. Basically all of the patterns can be reduced to four: (a) boss and hobnail band alike with rim of contrasting color; (b) boss and rim alike with hobnail band of contrasting color; (c) boss, hobnail band and rim each of a different color; (d) boss and hobnail band alike but outlined by a fine line, rim of contrasting color.” In addition to the patterns, the body type is also found in solid colors.

Shape #4 has a convex center and a rolled rim. It is found in solid colors and centers of white, perle or orange luster and contrasting rims of solid colors. Shapes # 5, 6, 7, 8 are found only in solid colors. or lusters. Shape #9 is rare and found in white or perle luster. Before leaving “gaiters”, I’d like to include two examples which are not shown in Guidelines. The first is a drum shape calico gaiter. It has the traditional plate and loop shank. This example measures just under 1/2″ and has a calico pattern covering the top but not the sides of the drum shaped china piece. It is found in a variety of calico patterns and in a slightly larger […]

The second unusual type is larger, has a rolled rim and an impressed faux four-hole sew-through pattern.

PART 2 : Minor Classes of China Buttons Having Metal Shanks

Part 2 deals with china shoe and smock buttons. Shoe buttons are of two different styles. From Guidelines, “One group has a rounded top, a flat back, a metal loop shank inserted in the body….The other group has a pin-shank passing through the body.” Smock buttons are those worn on uniforms. Our reference says they are only found in white, but black bodied smock type buttons do exist.

I’m inserting here a photo of an unusual pin-shank shoe button.

PART 3. China Bird Cages (Inserted Four-Way Self Shanks)

This button derives its name from the reverse of the button and the resemblance of the shank configuration to a cage. Guidelines describes the construction: “The button is made of two (in some shapes three) separate pieces. The cap is dish-like with large mouthed opening on the under side. The shank portion (a hollow cone pierced by four slits) fits over the opening like a lid. Drawings No. 2 and 3 show three -piece construction, the knob or tip in center being an added part.” ”Bird cage tops are of four shapes: 1. a smooth convex cap; 2. a fluted border sloping down slightly from a small cap in the center; 3. fluted border like No. 2 but with a peaked cap inside; 4. the same with a concave center.”

A bird’s eye view of the reverse of this type of china button (forgive me…I couldn’t resist.) Guidelines lists six patterns. My collection suggests that patterns 2, 4 and 5 are very rare. Pattern #6 was a gift and I have never seen another one.

The fluted rim example is often found in solid white and may also be found with a completely lustered top. The center may be marbled or mottled shades or a solid color or luster. Guidelines says that colored flutings are much more unusual than colored centers.

PART 4. China Buttons with Inserted Two-Way Self Shank

From Guidelines: ”These china buttons are molded in two parts….The shanks are hollow disks rounded to fit into a molded well at the back of the button top. The slightly elongated shank has two holes at opposite sides, used for sewing the button to the fabric. There seem to be twenty different types of button in this class, each with individual characteristics, but all alike in shank construction.”

Plates 19 and 20 depict a drawing and a black and white photo of the 20 original body styles. Pattern Number 1 is distinguished from 1a because of the differing application of paint across the surface grooves. Number 11 is one of the scarcer shapes. It is found in the smallest (3/8″) and the largest (7/8″) examples of this body type. Number 12 is not pictured but is described: ”It is bean-like with the shank where the bean would be attached to the pod.”

A close up of the difference between #1 (black stripe) and #1a (red stripe) below:

Since 1970 when Guidelines was published, many more different styles of body tops, or patterns on known body types, have been discovered, all sharing the shank as described above. Matthew Brown has also contributed a nifty acronym, TWISS, which is finding acceptance in the china world. (Thank you, Matthew.) Matthew, Jane Quimby and Deb Hanson are responsible for discoveries of most of the new types shown in the scan below. There are many others!

PART 5: China Whistle Buttons

From Guidelines: “A ‘whistle’ button has been broadly defined as ‘any button with a single verticle hole at the top and two or more at the back.’” “China whistles have two (very rarely three) holes at the back, one on top.” “They are put together in four different ways.”

Guidelines mentions that the same shape and patterns can be found on both A and B construction types. The text says that only solid white D types have been found, making this the rarest construction type. And the rarely seen china whistle with three or four holes on the reverse:

Notice the very fine coated wire holding the buttons in place? Try your local Radio Shack store, asking for 30AWG Kynar Wire. The catalog number is (was?) 278-502. Use it for all your whistles, and smile. Continuing from Guidelines, “A complete list of colors used on china whistles would be very long….it would include white, black, red, blue, green, purple, lavender, orange, brown, gray, and pink plus gold, silver and copper luster.” “…a single shade may have a matt, a bright or a lustered finish.” 20 shapes of china whistles are illustrated in Guidelines.

Of the shapes, I have found the scarcer types to be #s 5, 8, 11, 13, 14, 15, 19 and 20. And obviously, #s 16 and 18 are rare. Guidelines does not list “marbled” as a color, but it is common on body type #17. There are 10 patterns illustrated in Guidelines. The statement is made that “no pattern comes on more than one shape” and the shape to which each pattern belongs is given in the text.

Pattern # 9 is elusive, but several patterns have surfaced which have not been included in Guidelines‘ list. Others may be seen at the China Button Exchange site

In the following photo the first row shows china whistles shapes which were not catalogued, but are legitimate examples. The second row includes from left to right: a marbled unlisted body type, a faux marbled finish on an unlisted body type and two unlisted patterns.

And lastly, there are some glass whistles that are commonly mistaken for china whistles. Utilitarian china buttons do not have “D” shaped holes on the reverse.

Part 6 : The Elusive Igloo Button

The igloo is the last button included under “Complex Construction.” There are both small (under 3/4″) and medium (over 3/4″) igloo buttons in approximately equal numbers. The current classification lists igloos as two-hole sew-throughs. They are distinguished by their unusual construction, in which a flat disk with two holes is topped by a dome with side openings for the sewing-through process.

The pattern #9, a white igloo top on a blue disk base is considered rare.

The half igloo? While collecting chinas I have found three different examples of the bottom disk of an igloo missing the rounded dome. One day while browsing Guidelines I noticed Shape 13 listed under Two-Hole Hollow-Eye buttons and realized I had never seen an example of this button in a collection. Refer to pages 53-54–could it be the half igloo? The blue mottled example below measures 9/16″ as referenced in Guidelines for Shape 13.

Chapter 1: The Essentials

Chapter One: Essential Data Concerning China Buttons
by Lillian Smith Albert and Jane Ford Adams

Chapter one details the invention of the china button. To summarize: In 1840 in England Richard Prosser received a patent for a new process to shape a ceramic button. From Guidelines for Collecting China Buttons: “The material which Prosser used was not potter’s clay; it was, instead, a very fine, dry powder… The method consisted of placing the powder in a steel die of the desired shape and compressing it to about one-fourth its bulk. This operation produced perfectly shaped buttons ready for the kiln. Moreover, production was rapid and firing loss small.”

A quote from Thomas Prosser, brother of the patent holder is also included in the Guidelines: “The number which one woman can make of these buttons is almost incredible. Twenty-five buttons are often made in one minute, but the usual rate is from 12 to 18 per minute, the week round. The price paid for making is one cent per gross, at which rate the earnings of one woman vary from $3 to $4 1/2 per week. Twenty thousand gross of buttons have been made per week.”

Doing the math, labor costs for 2 million, eight hundred eighty thousand buttons, the week’s production, would have been $200. Contrast this rate with the traditional labor-intensive process of hand shaping and firing fine porcelain buttons, and the financial success of the humble china button is easily understood.

Production began at Mintons in England (1840-1846); Charles Cartlidge & Co. in Greenpoint, Long Island (1848-1856); at the factory of Jean Felix Bapterosses first in Paris and then south at Briare (1843-1900’s); and in Germany under the brands R. C. and A.R.

China buttons sold for as little as 2c a dozen for plain, and 3c a dozen for decorated. The buttons came on cards that could be cut to give the purchaser the number of buttons needed.

It was Jean-Felix Bapterosses who aggressively dominated the industry. In 1844 he substantially increased production with a patent for a machine to strike 500 buttons at once. With a formula based on ground feldspar, unique to his area, the first shipment of what he termed “agate buttons,” took place in September of 1845. In March of 1847 he had added lustered buttons to his production line and in the same year patented a kiln making it possible to fire buttons in 15 minutes. He continued to be innovative with the introduction of colored buttons and by 1849 was producing a full range of styles and colors at the rate of 1,400,000 buttons per day. He employed 150 people in the factory and 400 women outside the factory to put the buttons on cards. By 1850 he succeeded in manufacturing, firing and shipping his buttons to be carded, in less than 25 minutes.

A complete description of the manufacturing process of china buttons is included in Large Factories of France by Julian Turgan, published in Paris in 1865 and found online in French. Matthew Brown has translated the text and it can be downloaded here: Translation


China Buttons are my Thing!

China buttons are a natural jumping off point for a beginning button collector– as the first mass produced porcelain button they can be found in a variety of great colors, patterns and shapes. And, rarities aside, they are usually affordable. Guidelines for Collecting China Buttons, published by the National Button Society in 1970, has been THE reference for china collectors but is regrettably out of print. The text was the work of collectors Ruth Lamm, Beatrice and Lester Lorah, Helen W. Schuler, Lillian Smith Albert and Jane Ford Smith. Currently there are no plans to rewrite this essential book on china buttons–the volume of material to republish, and the additional information that should be included in a new text, seem overwhelming.

In this space I would like to offer excerpts from the original text and attempt to re-create and expand upon its black and white plates of button types, transforming them into bright internet-color. (Note: I am finding as I work through this project that I am: 1- inconsistent; 2-occasionally incorrect; 3- still enthusiastic).

Content of Guidelines for Collecting China Buttons:

Chapter One: Essential Data Concerning China Buttons, by Lillian Smith Albert and Jane Ford Adams


Chapter Two: China Buttons with Complex Construction

  1. Gaiter Buttons
  2. Shoe Buttons, Smock Buttons
  3. China Bird Cages (Inserted Four-Way Self Shanks)
  4. China Buttons with Inserted Two-Way Self Shanks
  5. China Whistle Buttons
  6. The Elusive Igloo Button


Chapter Three: Two-Hole China Buttons

  1. Two-Hole Hollow-Eye China Buttons
  2. Deepwell China Buttons
  3. Two-Hole China Button with Smooth Beveled Rim
  4. Tire Shape
  5. Two-Hole China Buttons with Radiating-Line Rims
  6. China Buttons with Oval Eyes
  7. Fisheye China Buttons
  8. Panty-Waist Chinas
  9. Pattern-Eyes


Chapter Four: Four-Hole China Buttons

  1. Four-Hole China Buttons with Smooth Beveled Rims (Dish Type, Ink Wells)
  2. Saucer-Type
  3. Four-Hole China Buttons with Rolled Rims (Tire Type, Tire Type Variants
  4. Off-Beat Types (Body Style 6, Body Style 7)
  5. Sew-Through China Buttons with Radiating-Line Rims
  6. Four-Hole China Buttons with Hobnail Rims


Chapter Five: Three-Hole China Buttons

  1. Dish Type
  2. Ink-Well Type
  3. Saucer Type
  4. Tire Type
  5. Plate Shape
  6. Scalloped Edge
  7. Back Interest
  8. Radiating-Line Rim Type
  9. Hobnail Type


Chapter Six: Calico and Gingham Buttons


Chapter Seven: Another China Button Sample Case Saved


Chapter Eight: China Stencil Designs