Thursday, December 17, 2015


These buttons are KHEPERS (keepers)! *grin*
Meet the Beetles!  
These sweet little lovelies are Egyptian SCARAB BEETLES and are mounted in silver. What a great find at the antique show I went to last Saturday! I calmly and politely bargained for them. I put on a poker face, trying my best to act uninterested... seeming ready to pass them back and walk away (never!!) as I made a final offer...and was victorious.  

Yes, I admit it... I did a little happy button dance walking away from that table clutching my prize! My husband acted like he didn't know me for 5 minutes. LOL

They are a Dung Beetle, which is an ARTHROPOD and scarab comes from the taxonomic family name, Scarabaeidae.  This video about blew my mind... pretty interesting if you have an interest in these bugs!

These odd beetles spend their days flying around (yes, they have wings!) searching out piles, forming and rolling balls of dung backwards with their hind legs.  Yeah... doodie, poop, number 2!! The dung is not only their food source, but they will roll the ball to put under ground in a burrow where it then lays an egg in it, which keeps the egg warm due to composting action. 
Mom!  Herman isn't playing ball with meeeeeeee!
The egg incubates in the warm crib of caca known as a brood ball, hatches and then the single offspring eats it while in larvae form until ready to molt and emerge from the nest, fully formed and ready to fly away to carry on the tradition. 

"Hey kids! Dinner's ready. I don't care what you think it tastes like! Just eat it.!"   I should remind my husband about the dung beetle next time he complains about having to eat leftovers.  At least it's not the same **** every day.  haha... 


An Egyptian Scarab beetle is also known as a Kheper, which is an Egyptian PUN (and we all know how I love a good pun!). 

The Egyptian word kheprer means both scarab and "to exist or become" and to the ancient Egyptians, the strange insect was associated with word the due to their other worldly sudden appearance out of the earth. 

The beetles were worshiped by the Egyptians and became an important symbolic figure of creation and resurrection akin to the cross and its symbolic meaning for Christians, Almost everyone wore the symbol of the scarab in one form or another as an amulet worn around the neck on a cord or string or tied to the wrist or a finger.  

The scarab beetle was often depicted with a sun overhead since like the sun, the beetles appeared and disappeared each day. They also believed the dung beetle kept the Earth revolving just like a giant ball of dung they rolled underground, linking the insect to Khepri, the Egyptian god of the rising sun who was believed to control the movement of the sun.

The Egyptian god Khepri, (also derived from the same word Kheprer) was considered the god of the sun, creation, life and resurrection and like the scarab, like the scarab, he was believed to also be self-existing (appeared on his own and not created by anyone or anything).  

He is usually is depicted as a human with a scarab beetle on his head or with the head of a scarab beetle. Like the scarab, Khepri was believed to push or roll the sun along the sky each day, just as the Scarab pushes along his "special" cargo and food.  The little beetles do in fact, follow the sun for guidance in navigation to their burrow.  

The scarab was used as an important Egyptian symbol before 2000 BCE and continued well beyond the the last Pharaoh ruling Egypt.

Hmmm, a bug and a guy with a bug head who have coprophagia (your FBR word of the day... gah!) and then you want to become a big fan boy of that guy and the bug? The early Egyptians weren't the sharpest crayons in the box I think.  LOL


When you thinks of Egypt, the pyramids, sphinxes, mummies, and the scarab amulet are probably the first objects that come to mind.  Okay, and maybe the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones flashed in mine for a second or two and to be honest, the Bangles song Walk Like An Egyptian song became a brain worm for a day. DOH!  *shrugs*

The scarab has been collected for centuries, with the most interest for them starting in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as drawings of the wonders of Egypt started to appear after the first European explorers reported their findings.  Before the 19th century, travel from Europe to Egypt was difficult and almost unheard of. In 1799 Napoleon's expedition drew attention to the treasures of Egypt.  Exploration of 1845-45 and documentation started the desire for all things Egyptian and the Egyptian Grand Tour era was born.

Archaeological and antique Egyptian treasures were both a popular tourist item and the small scarab amulet pieces were brought back or imported in order to sell to collectors and were often incorporated into jewelry (and occasionally buttons and studs). Egyptian design became highly popular all through the 19th century when the first Egyptian Grand Tour era was in full swing during the late-Victorian era.  Many antiquities, but especially small scarabs, were brought back from Egypt because they were so plentiful back then.

The interest in all things from Egypt really ramped up again when in 1891 British archaeologist Howard Carter started searching Egypt again, even though most of the ancient Egyptian tombs had been discovered.  

The little-known King Tutankhamen, who had died at the age of 18, was still unaccounted for and shortly after World War I Carter started an intensive search for King Tut’s Tomb. On November 26, 1922 he and a fellow archaeologist (Lord Carnarvon) found and entered the amazingly intact tomb. The interest in the story and news of the found treasures greatly and quickly influenced design. Jewelers such as Cartier, incorporated faience, scarabs and other Egyptian made pieces in fine pieces of Egyptian inspired jewelry around that same time.
Scarabs have fascinated the amateur collector for well over a century.  Interest in the little amulets in beetle form heightened when in 1917 W.F.M. Petrie published a now classic guide which is most often referred to by collectors.  Scarabs and Cylinders with Names not only has become the reference for scarab collectors, but also by those who wish to deceive collectors and use it to produce forgeries. 

There are scarabs which bear the names of kings, the royal family and names of officials, of which are carefully and artfully carved on the reverse in both raised or intaglio carved hieroglyphs.  Much in the same way that coins show the changes in a civilization, the reverse of a scarab can provide a method of dating them and applying their historical place in Egypt.


When I saw and purchased the buttons, I just assumed them to be a glazed ceramic or Egyptian faience. Faience is an odd material, and is made from sintered finely crushed silica (a finely crushed quartz), plant ash and copper oxide.
Back view of silver shank.  The bar connecting the bezel obscures the carving on the bottom.
It isn't really a pottery, but is the earliest known NON-CLAY ceramic composition (similar to Prosser china buttons in a way). It was a precursor to glazed clay-based ceramics, such as earthenware and stoneware, and also to glass (which wasn't invented until around 3500 BCE). It was made to mimic precious stone (lapis and turquoise) and can be found in a wide range of shades of turquoise, blue and green, though the oldest found usually has a glaze that has mostly turned to a brown color. Water was mixed with the crushed paste mixture to make it moldable and as it dried, the water and alkali migrated to the top of the piece, bringing with it the copper oxides which self glazes the piece as it is fired and creates a vitreous hardened surface as the alkali fuses with the quartz and copper. 
Tuesday I started off what would become a looooong day doing research on Egyptian scarabs. I figured I was on the right track ROLLING IT around in my head *grin*, that all scarabs were made of Egyptian Faience. Right?
An ancient molded faience Scarab

While there are faience scarabs, everything started to indicate that the buttons I found were made of glazed carved STEATITE (a mineral talc occurring in a consolidated form, or as it's more commonly known as SOAPSTONE) once I started reading about the history of the scarab.

Both the earliest Egyptian scarabs (antiquities, beginning around 2040 - 1786 BCE ) and modern antique scarabs were carved from steatite and then they were glazed with copper or cobalt based glazes that were fluxed with plant ash and fired to give them their beautiful glossy blue and green colors and also fuses with the steatite and creates a hardened surface in the same manner that the glaze did on faience material.   

Glazed mineral or stone!?  Wow.  Well, I certainly learned something new!  I didn't even know that glazing a mineral was even possible!!
Range of colors in the set of buttons.  So pretty!
One clue that you have steatite is that you won't see fine sharp molded details (as with a ceramic or glass) and when you have a set, it's easy to see that they all are carved just a bit different. 

The glaze makes it difficult to identify just what the material is made of (and I was only about 80% sure about these being glazed soapstone by this time). So to be SURE... I emailed an expert who is a collector of early Egyptian Scarabs and seals who lives in Germany. 

I told him that they were in a (tarnished) silver setting, and that the scarabs were each drilled at each long end. There was a sharp point from the silver bezel setting holding the scarab cab in the setting by being inserted into the holes at each end.

I also told him that I thought they were probably soapstone/steatite, and that I figured they were put in the silver settings during the Egyptian Revival period, around 1920, though I had no idea of the age of the scarabs themselves.  I also said that I would value his time and opinion since I wanted to write about these, and wanted to provide correct information for anyone who would care to read about them, and also so I could categorize the material and age correctly in my collection.  I offered to send photos as an email attachment if he cared to see them.  He replied fairly quickly and told me to send photo attachments.  

This was is reply late yesterday:

Hi Vicky,

Thanks for your Email and the pics. I think you are perfectly correct with a date around 1920. They are not antique in terms of archaeology but certainly older than 50 years in my opinion.

They look as if they are coming from the same workshop or even were made by the same hand. However the stuff coming from modern workshops in Egypt does not reach this quality.

Material seems to be glazed steatite and at least on one example I can see a stylized Amun-Re inscription with flanking Neb signs (=lord) so the inscriptions seem to make sense, which nowadays is not always the case. The shape is inspired by 19th Dynasty scarabs (roughly 1300-1200 B.C.) They were probably made when Egyptology reached it's height of popularity in the 20s or 30s. Older examples from the 19th century are known as "Grand Tour scarabs" These are sometimes hard to distinguish from the originals. Authentic Grand tour scarabs are carefully made, often glazed and mostly have a readable inscription, often copied from illustrations in Petrie or Newberry. You can find examples on the internet but the term is often used to sell modern forgeries especially on ebay. 

For a button collector your scarabs must be very interesting, thanks for sharing them

Best Wishes and Merry Christmas
(if you'd like to have a look at his website and pieces from his collection, it's really fascinating! )

So there we have it!  Not ancient antiquities, however the scarabs older than the settings, and they're glazed steatite.  The markings he noted on the back of each scarab are interesting, but unfortunately, the setting blocks viewing them for the most part.

Olaf also sent me a link to a scarab from the last century BCE which was in a setting from the Victorian period to show me the difference between a true scarab antiquity brought in during the Egyptian Grand Tour and set into jewelry to compare with I have. The very early scarabs are very finely carved and finished.  He warned me though, that there are many forgeries of these out there that mimic these ancient scarabs. You can see the lovely piece here:

Modern scarabs, especially those in the last 50-80 years which are imported for jewelry, beading or crafting usually aren't hard to distinguish.  They are a bit boxy rather than oval and the top is flatter (rather than rounded top shell).  Details, especially the head and legs just aren't carved well on most of these. 
Modern scarabs sometimes sold as old.
A BUTTON SCARAB as called by scarab collectors, is actually a SCARAB AMULET. They LOOK like a button fastener, but are NOT.  They were also worn, suspended by a drilled hole through a formed hump area on the bottom of the scarab and a thread or cord was threaded into the hole and it was tied on as a necklace, on a wrist or finger. Many of these amulets found today are fakes, made to look like the ancient ones in order to deceive scarab collectors, and may pop up in button collections or for sale as a button once in a while. 

Resist buying those with these "self shanks" that are thick and usually have lined carving on them. One of these was mentioned in the NBS bulletin Sept. 1955 as a button, in a collection.  Ugh! A bonus though, if a true antiquity (and not a later forgery) it could be worth a bundle of money!!

When a scarab cab is set in metal or has more of a typical button style self or inserted metal shank, you can be assured that it was meant to be used as a button.

Keep a look out for a lovely real beetle shell set in metal button also! It's NOT a scarab (as sellers like to identify it as), but a Brazilian or Ecuadorian beetle known as a Cassidinae or TORTOISE BEETLE from the Chrysamelid family. It's a leaf beetle with a beautiful iridescent shell that makes for a wonderful button, just not as scarab beetle example!
Photo from Pinterest
Scarabs have had several eras of design popularity and when one shows up on a button, pricing on them usually is stiff, so snap up bargains quickly! 

A set of six jeweled gold-mounted Nephrite scarab buttons marked Fabergé, Moscow, 1899-1908.
Sold at Christies auction for $50,602.00
Fun group of scarab and Egyptian theme buttons found on Pinterest, noted as sold on eBay for $124.95.
They're always a popular pictorial for button collectors and it would take a while to put together a whole varied tray of them because they aren't terribly common, especially Division I scarab examples! Both Division I and Division III (modern) eras have scarab pictorials in a variety of materials such as ceramic, plaster, carved stone and gemstone, glass, enameled metal and modern plastics. There are also a few fabulous metal scarab buttons to be found. 

Scarabs, beetles and other bugs are fun to search for on buttons and are probably one of my favorite pictorials (next to Dogs). 

I was pretty happy to be able to bring these guys home AND it was a birthday gift to myself.  I'm tellin' ya...on the way home from the antique show, I could hear all 7 of the little beetle buttons singing "Crappy Birthday toooo Yoooouuuuuu!" from inside the bag, I swear it!!

Wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and a buggy button New Year from myself and Luna the Wonder Chihuahua here at Flying Button Ranch.

FBR xx

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Jaw Dropper in the collection - Coquilla Nuts - ODD but Wonderful!

Once in a while, a button comes to us that makes our jaw fly open *grin*  As I was sorting the 100's of loose buttons from the collection I bought locally, I couldn't believe my eyes when I grabbed this button, it was one of *those* jaw droppers:

Note the twisted brass wire at 3:00 on the button holding the beads into the metal rim.

And the construction?  Amazing!

R i g h t?  *grin*

Well the thing that really got me going were those wired BEADS!

It was the beaded border that had me a bit unsure.  After I reset my jaw, I wondered for a minute if they were vegetable ivory, but that didn't seem quite right by the way they looked.  There was a difference in color in the beads, especially one in particular (see above) that reminded me of something, but I couldn't put a finger on it.  It sat on a card as I pondered it for weeks...

Then I remembered!  

COQUILLA NUT!  (pronounced Ko-Kee-Ya)

I WILL explain! *grin*
It's not a button material you'll see used often, and you may not have ever even heard of them, but its use was well documented during the early 1800's for a variety of items and was used in manners very similar to vegetable ivory.  

The Coquilla nut is South American and is in fact the fruit from a Brazilian Palm.  It is also closely related to the coconut palm and is used like the slightly smaller vegetable ivory nut is.  The oval nut is about 3 to 4 inches long, and has a very hard, richly streaked brown shell that is capable of taking a fine polish.  


The nut of the Coquilla was used for a variety of highly ornamental popular items,, usually with "Turnery" carved, and drilled designs.

Victorian Coquilla Nut Thimble Cases

The following is an excerpt from The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics by Ackermann, Rudolph, 1764-1834 says this about Coquilla Nuts:

"The uncommonly pleasing colour of the  shell, the hardness and the native mottle which appears when it is highly polished, renders it capable of being employed, with the most agreeable effect, as it is susceptible of the most tasteful forms — on the writing-table, in wafer-boxes and seals, pounce, sand-boxes, &c. — on the ladies’ work-table, in needle-cases and thimble-cases, cotton-boxes, pincushions, &c. — or on the toilette and dressing-table, in boxes for lip-salve, rouge, scented sponges, and every kind of pomade. In the form of egg-cups, the nuts will be found to decorate the eating ‘table. 
As bell-pulls, they are very elegant.  As they appear to great advantage when worked up into beads, rosaries, and crosses, they will, doubtless, give a pleasing variety to personal decoration, when shaped into necklaces, bracelets, ear-rings, and other trinkets. Little useful pocket articles, as nutmeg-graters, cases for smelling-bottles, and other similar portable conveniences ; in short, whatever has been formed from ivory, may be produced from the shell of the Coquilla, whose beauty will not fail to attract, while the price of the article will satisfy the purchaser.”"

(the entire book is on line, free at HERE)

More wonderful information about Coquilla Nuts to give you an idea about the natural nut's look and more can be found at the Nutmeg Graters (dot) com website HERE.

This also made me wonder.. Could it be possible that we are confusing a few buttons with Vegetable Ivory that are actually Coquilla nut!?  They look very similar.  Yikes!!

A hand-full of wonderful!

So... This lovely button is definitely an oldie (Div I), and a large size,  The beautiful wood appears to be Rosewood and is slightly lipped.  The wood face holds the stamped metal design face by attached pins which go through the wood and are curved back flat on the back of the button through the bar shank.

The bar type shank stretches from the metal outer curved metal border piece which cradles and holds the wired beads on.  It has a soldered brass metal loop shank.  A complicated and wonderful construction!

I have a bit more research to do on this one to make 100% sure it's Coquilla (I'm 99% sure it IS), and I'll update when I get the time to do a bit more looking around.  Unfortunately, this boxing up of the house to put it on the market and getting ready to move in December/January is interfering with my buttoning AND writing in this blog!! LOL

I'm also going to try to do a bit of searching to find out WHY this woman has her hands inside her Obi sash.  LOL  Is that socially acceptable? *rolls eyes*  Does she stash her cookies there so her kids and her husband can't find them? Bwahaaaaaaaa  That's what I'D DO with my obi

Seriously, I'd like to know if she is a Geisha?  A Courtisan? A story character or famous figure of some kind?  You know me... always curious what the story is BEHIND THE BUTTON.


SO... I just wanted you all to see this jaw dropper now, even though I don't have much info. on her yet, and also just to drop a little bit of Coquilla Nut information on you!

Oh, and don't forget to go over to the Flying Button Ranch Facebook page.  I try to post something about buttons every day!  It's keeping me SANE.  Please LIKE and FOLLOW my Facebook page for button posts and updates on new Flying Button Ranch Blog posts!  (Don't forget to check the SEE FIRST box!).

Feel free to share links to this blog on your website, Facebook page or Button Club page!

Question?  Comment?  Please post or contact me through this blog or on the FBR Facebook page!
Until next time! <3 FBR
P.S.  A quick update:  Thanks to Jackie Douglas of Toronto for emailing me to tell me that she spotted this button is in the 1977 book Buttons - A Collector's Guide by Victor Houart on page 83!! “button of Japanese inspiration...brass on a black metal background surrounded by beads in boxwood. 1880-1890. “   How lucky am I that she just got that book!?
I confess, I NEVER look in that book!  Why?  Mr. Houart is a GENERAL collectible's author (his books include those on Antique Spoons, Miniature Silver Toys, Easter Eggs, Sewing Accessories), and doesn't really have much to offer about buttons (IMHO), so after the first look through, it just went on the shelf with all the rest of my button books.  BUT... I ran upstairs to my button books, and sure enough *tah dah* there she was!  I don't think Victor got the bead material right, or it was made from different beads at different times perhaps?  Mine doesn't have a black metal background like he mentions either (maybe that was in error on Mr. H's part due to the b/w photo?), and he doesn't give a clue as to the size of the button that is shown in his book. Regardless, much thanks flying out to Jackie.  It was fun to see a grainy photo of this button in a book, and I still think it's a rather scarce button, BUT I'll keep looking to see if I can find more!  'Till next time! <3 FBR

Thursday, June 25, 2015

There's a Place In France (Part II)

You remember this guy from last time? 
Lion of Belfort
(If not, go ahead and read There's a Place In France - Part I, It’s okay, I’ll wait for you, Princess Luna wants a cookie anyway).
NOW would be good... *dog sigh*
Okay... back to the buttons!  So, last time I left you wondering what the buttons were made of.  Did you guess?

Molded and Brown... Well, that could be one of many things.  Right?  For many collectors, identification of materials is an enjoyable part of the hobby. For others, it's a pain the the buttootie.

If you want to know if your button is old, or a modern button, the material it's made of can tell you.  If you want to compete with your buttons, it's pretty necessary to get a decent grasp on materials.

Buttons hold clues to their material identification, and all you have to do is use all your senses and utilize a few tricks. Don't know much about materials yet?  Don't worry! 

We'll review some materials today (as they relate to the Lions material mystery), how to eliminate them, the history of the material, who made them, dates of manufacture, patents, the typical attributes, how to test the material and sprinkle in a few really interesting tidbits that maybe even the more seasoned collector may not even know!

Feel free to skip about (or go to the end to see what the Lions are made of) and come back to the beginning to read when you have time.  I'm a willow... I can bend.  LOL  Okay, here we go!

After looking at the Lions, FIRST I weigh the common moldable materials available during the period of time that I believe the buttons were made.  Since the Lion buttons are related to the identical metal stamped version that have cut steels in the design, and we know that's a Division I button (made before 1918), I can eliminate some materials quickly just from this information.  See the NBS Classification booklet for more information on the date divisions for materials.

NEXT I gather up my tools.  There are some simple and easy things that can help in determination of materials.  Some of the things I keep handy in my basket:

  • Sharp T-pins or needles
  • Magnets to rule out aluminum, copper, lead, tin, zinc, brass and bronze.
  • Good reading glasses (look for +2.50 or +3.0 reading magnification glasses at your dollar store.  I even buy +4.00 - +6.0 when I can find them!)
  • A good 10x (at least) jeweler's loupe (get good info on how to buy good Jeweler's loupes at this page).
  • Good lighting source for your work table (important).
  • Foam polishing pads
  • Small tile with an unglazed white back or a coffee cup with an unglazed white bottom
  • Electric hot needle tester
  • Small portable hand held black light or a black light set up in the button room/area
  • Small scraps of wool fabric to conduct tests on materials that conduct static electricity (tend to attract electrons) like Hard Rubber, Amber and Whitby Jet. Those materials will become electrostatically charged and attract small particles like tiny pieces of tissue paper, dust and small bits of dryer lint after wool and some other woven materials are rubbed on it.
Hand held Black lights, polishing pads, jewelers loupe, needle, NBS measure, magnet, 
Electric Hot Needle and spring holder, small flashlight, magnification glasses.


With a quick review using the five senses I can:

LOOK to see if they are molded or carved by hand, look at the color and see if there are changes to the color (fading from front/back) and look for signature color clues.  Turn on a black light to see if the material fluoresces.  

Next I FEEL if they are cold to the touch (an indicator of glass, gemstone, shell) or if the material warms quickly in the hand and feel if it is dense (heavy) or a light weight material for the size.  

I can listen to see if it makes an unusual SOUND when tapped with my fingernail, on my teeth, tapped on a counter or clinked together in my hand (like the noise of poker chips and then compare materials to that). 

I'll check to see if it has a TASTE (yeah, weird but in some cases, it works).  A few materials can have a salty taste.  Will people look at you weird as you smell and lick buttons at a button show?  YES.  LOL  Probably not a good idea to run around licking buttons.  If you feel you must, maybe ask a dealer before you do it...  or at least be discrete, pretend to be smelling it and wipe it off when you are done (for sure!).  It could be a good way to get free buttons... or asked to leave the button show.  Ha ha.

I'll give the button a sniff and SMELL it to see if there is an odor from the material of the button as it sits and see if it changes when I apply a bit of friction heat by giving it a brisk rub with my thumb or a cloth.  Many plastics and composition materials will have a distinct smell when some simple friction heat is applied.

Be aware that buttons that just came out of old tins or jars can really smell funky and buttons that came from the home of a heavy smoker may smell of nicotine residue.... yuck!  A quick cleaning may be in order before a smell test.  
Does the button have a finish on it?  If so, NO cleaning or heat rubbing/friction on the face of the button!  Part of the senses testing also includes some COMMON SENSE.  


Cold needle test:  A quick way to start to eliminate materials when you just don't know what you're looking at is to take a new thin sewing needle or T-pin (which is what I like to use) and see if the point will stand up in the material.  Do NOT use heavy force, and use a really (really!) sharp new needle or pin.  Do this on the back, near the shank or if the material is only visible on the front, near the very edge by the metal setting/rim so you don't leave a blemish in a visible spot.  The pin stick into the material is very tiny so you shouldn't be able to see a mark after it's done if you put it at the shank area or edge of the metal.  

If the pin stands up on it's own, it's NOT glass, shell/pearl, gemstone/Whitby Jet, ivory, bone, china, ceramic, or metal.  A pin will stand up in most natural materials like wood, rubber, compositions and molded plastics.  

I like to think I know my materials pretty well *rolls eyes* yet I earned myself a measle a few years ago on a metal summary tray (10-14.3 OME - Shell) when I could have 1) put on a good pair of magnifying glasses and 2) used the cold pin test on a button that I thought I knew had a small shell disk in the center.  
A Fooler... GAH!!!
WRONG!  It was a clever imitation of plastic that really looked like shell.  The judges either knew the button, or had great eyesight, and NOW I will never forget that button.  I got home with the tray, used a cold needle and... *face palm*

Feelin' like a noobie...

Once you eliminate several materials using this simple cold needle test, you can start to do other tests that will also eliminate materials from the small list you now have.


Black Light Test:  I've just recently learned that a black light can be a helpful first test by confirming if a material is natural or artificial. 

I had always used one on my glass to identify uranium glass, but never thought about natural materials before!  Use the black light in the darkest room possible.  I go in my walk in kitchen pantry for total darkness to view things with a black light during the day (and it's really, really dark in there!).  
Inexpensive small hand held battery operated black light.
Here's what I just found out:  All plastics and resins will fluoresce a blue or blueish white color regardless of the surface color.  Most (but not all) modern paper will fluoresce a bright blue or white because starting about late 1930/WWII, paper manufacturers started adding brighteners to paper.  

Old natural materials like horn and vegetable ivory will fluoresce dull yellow or brown.   I'm still trying to figure out how dyes/paint may change the results.

Hard paste porcelain will fluoresce a deep blue or purple and soft paste will fluoresce white.

Modern paint will fluoresce, which can give you clues for age on a button, or if something has been touched up or "invented" and presented as old.

Ivory, bone and natural vegetable ivory will fluoresce white (or a slight variation like a yellowish tone if it has a darker patina from being handled, or has paint/stains applied to it).  It's good to compare a known plastic (that glows a blueish white) to the white fluorescence result you are getting from an ivory/bone button.

I've only just started playing with the black light and other materials, so I'll have to make some notes and revisit this another time.  I'm sure there are some exceptions I don't know about yet.  If you use a black light to aid in identification of materials, I'd love to hear from you!

It's a good test but you'll need to continue on from there.  A black light can also highlight old repairs like highlighting glue/repair on a ceramic or other buttons or on a shank.  It can also identify glass made with uranium oxide (so fun!), and determine if fabric is made with polyester or rayon (and is modern).  
If you live in Arizona, the bonus of having a black light is that you can highlight all the Scorpions living in your yard at night.  Yeah... good times!

Did you know?  A small magnet can help you determine if your metal button is steel, or has a steel embellishment!  A great item to have in your Button bag and take with you to a button show!

The Material Finalists:

Lots of materials were ruled out quickly visually and by touch for my buttons.  We know the Metal Lion cousin button with the same design was Division I.  Division III materials were taken out of the running, like Bakelite and Galalith since they are generally Division III buttons.  

The list of materials candidates left to consider are:  Gutta Percha, Rubber (Vulcanite/Ebonite), Composition and  Horn (including horn composition).  

Gutta Percha:  
Before the buttons arrived, and before I actually got my hands on them, I was 85% positive that this was what they were.  Gutta Percha does discolor with light and heat exposure and I could see that the Lions had discoloration and color changes.  Gutta Percha is made from a plant latex, but it is a harder material than rubber and is more brittle.  A cold pin will stick into Gutta Percha's surface.

It is said to have a salty taste if you give it a little lick at the very tip of your tongue.  LOL! BUT know that not everyone is going to taste that.  Gutta Percha buttons may also be a mixture of gutta percha latex and rubber according to Jocelyn Howells (the Queen of button materials identification in my eyes).  That could account for some Gutta Percha buttons or embellishment pieces NOT not having the noted famous salty taste.

If hot needle testing, you won't get an acrid rubbery smell, or much more than a sweetish smell (unless it was one of the gutta percha compositions that was mixed with other materials). Because Gutta Percha is a Since it is a form of rubber, it can give off a rubber like smell, but because it was not made with a large amount of sulfur (like Ebonite/Vulcanite Rubber) it has a smell that isn't quite as acrid.  If you aren't sure about what you should be smelling, go take a dry cloth and rub one of your car tires to produce a bit of heat and give it a sniff, it's sort of similar. Most tires are a mixture of vulcanized rubber and synthetic rubbers and don't smell as acrid as old rubber tires did. 
Thought to be black Gutta Percha with a red, white and blue enameled brass plaque, molded rounded self shank.  I also have seen this button identified as horn BUT when I hot needle tested this one, all indications were Gutta Percha.  It is very brittle, leaves a heavy black mark when scraped across a tile and there wasn't the typical smell associated with horn or acrid smell of Rubber/Vulcanite.  I think I have more research to do on this button (obviously) as I labeled it as Gutta Percha for a competition and it passed (which means diddly squat!)  *shrugs*  LOL!
A patented vulcanized (heat cured) process for Gutta Percha was filed in England during 1846-47 by Charles Hancock.  His brother Thomas first worked with Gutta Percha mixed with sulfur in 1843.  
Scarce Large Black Glass with Gutta Percha OME. Mum flower.  Backmarked DeposĂ© Dd et. Cie

View of Back of Black Glass button above.
Early references to Guta Percha from 1860 call this material Caoutchouc and sulfur, or India Rubber.  During the period of 1843-1945 Gutta Percha was used for a myriad of items, including buttons, though Gutta Percha button examples are fairly scarce.  
Gutta Percha Wheat.  Inserted loop shank.  One of the more common designs.  
These have a salty taste AND an odd slightly acrid smell.
Gutta Percha colors range from dark yellow to red and light brown, reddish brown to jet black.

The name for the Gutta Percha comes from the Malay language (Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore) for the plant, getah perca.  It was used in a more crude form for centuries in Malaysia long before it was brought to the West.  Dr. William Montgomery introduced it for medical use after he saw workers in Singapore using it for machete handles in 1822.  
Gutta Percha as OME.  Wood, applied to back with screws,  Mum flower.  Brick brown color Sun Flower Gutta Percha attached with screws on the back to Wood, Large size.  Small wood with Gutta Percha Rose flower and leaves. These OME buttons all have a distinct salty taste to them!
In 1848, it was used as the first "gutty" golf ball.  It is still in use as the predominant material that is packed into the emptied roots of teeth in dentistry (dental pulp).  A latex elastomer similar to rubber, it was different in that it crystallizes into a more rigid material and didn't become overly brittle or gooey like early rubber did (before vulcanization).  It also lent itself well to molding of fancy and everyday utilitarian items including the popular dark jewelry (which people lump together as "Mourning" pieces), beads and buttons.  

Wood 2-pc Clasp with Gutta Percha screwed to the face as an OME.
Back View of Wood Clasp.

Gutta Percha as an other material embellishment (OME) affixed to another material is more common to find on buttons than finding a button made only of Gutta Percha.  I have Gutta Percha OME examples in my collection on black glass and wood.  

Three Gutta Percha buttons.  Rose in Black and Brown (black missing tinned rim).  Roman Scene with full bodied People. Long identified as Gutta Percha in button books, but oddly... these have NO salty taste to me like my other Gutta Percha buttons do.  
These could be a mixture of Gutta Percha and rubber?
A Gutta Percha rimmed flower/Rose can be found in two different colors (black and brown) and is probably one of the more common Gutta Percha buttons found at shows from dealers.  Another design that can be found is a Roman style helmet of ivorine that is pinned to a Gutta Percha button with a wire brass shank (and can be seen at the Button Country website).  I'm still looking to find that one!
Gutta Percha Rose with white metal rim OME.  A more common button.
Mound self shank with thread grooves.  All the Gutta Percha with a Tin rim have no salty taste (to me).

Gutta Percha fell out of fashion around 1925 when new moldable synthetic plastics came into vogue and women started to demand more color choices to complement the new styles of jewelry and fashion.  Generally, it's considered a Division I material, though it's possible that buttons were made after 1918.

Gutta Percha Head.  Woman with head wear.  Large.  Tinned White Metal Rim (OME)  This button, like the other rimmed buttons that are commonly identified as Gutta Percha does NOT have a salty taste to me.

Gutta Percha is classed as Section 15 – Other Materials in the NBS Classification Booklet.
French made Black Glass with a Gutta Percha molded floral cemented to the surface. Small.
The Gutta Percha would be considered an Other Materials Embellishment (OME)
and a counter on a Black Glass competition tray. See the Big Book of Buttons for another version 

constructed  like this with a Chrysanthemum flower. See Plates 31 and 32 for both these buttons
Did you know?  Most items identified as Gutta Percha probably are not and are really Vulcanite/Ebonite rubber or a Thermoplastic Composition.  The term Union Case for Daguerreotype images are incorrectly referred to as Gutta-Percha by most antique dealers and sellers according to The Daguerreian Society.  The term Union Case refers to the union of materials in order to make a molded decorative case and was coined in 1854 by Samuel Peck.  Peck was a daguerrotypist in the United States and invented the process of making the early plastic cases used for housing the photos.  The material used was a Thermoplastic Composition of shellac and ground wood flour (Patent No. 11,758, dated October 3, 1854).
Thermoset Daguerrotype Case.

Rubber:   Which includes:  
Vulcanite:  Used from 1839 onward for a wide range of items, from rubber tubes and medical use to pieces to lovely jewelry, vesta cases (fancy name for a match box), watch chains, tokens, pipe stems and handgun grips.  Vulcanite is considered a semi-synthetic and is lightweight and brittle.  
Square Vulcanite button with Rose and Bud.  Purchased from England.  
Screw applied plate and loop for a clasp.  Large.  

Back view of Vulcanite square button/clasp.
Did you know?  If a button has a center shank AND a fastener applied to function as a cloak/cape clasp it is acceptable as a button and can be used on a competition tray as a button!  See NBS Blue Book Appendix, page 54, Section 23 - Specific Types 23-3 Back types assorted.  Oh... and also, no need to go snipping off or removing the fastener (and wrecking something older than YOU!). *wags finger*  LOL  I've used these on entry trays many times, and no problemo!

Natural rubber was brought to Europe in the 18th century but it wasn't a material that was workable until the mid 19th century when chemical modification made it a hardened material.  Vulcanite was developed in 1840 and named such because of the heat process that hardened the rubber in the dies as they were machine molded (vulcanization).  It differs from Gutta Percha due to it being made from a different plant that has the same latex chemical formula, but a different chemical molecular structure or isomer.   

The rubber was combined with a large amount of sulfur and linseed oil along with coloring such as vermilion (made from the powdered mineral cinnabar) or lamp black.  Usually it is black or dark brown in color  but can be found in varying shades of lighter or reddish browns.  It was also made in white to imitate ivory and also pink gums as shown by these early dentures.  Early pieces are reported to be a reddish color, and there may be pieces found with a marbled effect (as reported by smoking pipe collectors of their early Vulcanite mouth pieces).  

Vulcanite will turn a lighter brown when exposed to the ultraviolet rays of sunlight or extreme temperature changes. It's also not uncommon to see a significant color difference from front to back on an item due to prolonged or daily sun exposure (which would be common on clothing buttons).  It can also develop a splotchy appearance, which is the result of exposure to water or moisture such as humidity which can cause sulfur to migrate to the surface of the object.  The discoloration that may appear as a color change can range from a yellowish or grayish green to a white color.  For this reason, store/display collected pieces away from any direct sunlight, or better yet, in a cabinet or file box!
Florence Mfg. Co. made Vulcanite and this token made of Vulcanite, 1876.  "Florence Mfg. Co. Flrence, Mass.  Toilet Brushes, Mirrors, Buttons and Ornaments"  

Back view.

If you decide to give it the taste test, there's no taste.  A quick taste is a fast way to determine if your button is Vulcanite or Gutta Percha (if you were to get a salty taste, it's Gutta Percha for sure). 

A brisk rub with your thumb to conduct some heat or a hot needle test will emit a strong sulfuric smell.   Some, especially if they have some sulfur migration, will emit the odor even without friction heat.  

Ebonite:  The former brand name for Hard Rubber invented by Charles Goodyear and patented in 1844 (patent number 3,633).  It's intended use was as a replacement and imitator of Ebony wood, hence the name.  It will have all the other attributes as Vulcanite above.  Nelson Goodyear (Charles' brother) experimented with Ebonite, adding zinc oxide as a filler in 1851.  Ebonite items are still being made today.

So... are Vulcanite and Ebonite two different materials?  NOPE... (thank gawd!)

According to A Dictionary of Science, Oxford University Press (1999), vulcanite is “a hard black insulating material made by the vulcanization of rubber with a high proportion of sulphur (up to 30%).” 

In 1913, Webster’s Dictionary states that Ebonite,
 a synonym, is “a hard, black variety of vulcanite. It may be cut and polished, and is used for many small articles, as combs and buttons, and for insulating material in electric apparatus.” (During the Victorian era, the ebony tree of southern Asia yielded very popular, dark-colored heartwood and was prized for cabinetwork and piano keys. Vulcanite resembled ebony, hence its popularity. 

Today, the terms ebonite and vulcanite are used interchangeably, raising questions that the two are of different materials. They are not
.) The process of vulcanization, according to the Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms (McGraw-Hill, 5th ed., 1994), is “…a chemical reaction of sulfur (or other vulcanizing agent) with rubber or plastic to cause cross-linking of polymer chains; it increases strength and resiliency of the polymer.” But why the root word, ‘vulcan’? Possibly because in the mid-19th century, Vulcan was a hypothetical planet whose orbit was thought by astronomers to be inside the orbit of Mercury; or, and much earlier, in Roman mythology, Vulcan was revered as the God of fire and craftsmanship, especially metalworking.  

It was Charles Goodyear that made the discovery of hard rubber (vulcanite) in 1839. It was patented in England by Thomas Hancock in 1843, and likewise by Nelson Goodyear, Charles’ younger brother, in the United States in 1851.

Did you know?  While Charles Goodyear held the patent for vulcanized rubber, he did not manufacture the buttons that bear his name and patent information on the back. He also never made tires!  He died in 1860 penniless and over $200,000 in debt!

Note:  Buttons back marked with Goodyear's Patent are classed as Section 15-4 under Other Materials.  Unmarkerubber buttons are classed as 15-5 Unlisted, and are not included with the Goodyear back marked buttons!  Yup!  A Vulcanite or Ebonite button, even though made of rubber, will NOT be classed as Section 15-4 Rubber, but are included under 15-5 Unlisted.  
How I looked when I first learned that Vulcanite and Ebonite were
NOT classed in 15-4 with Goodyear Rubber buttons (minus expletives).
Yes, my hair looked THAT good too *wink*.

On the bright side...That’s good news if you’re competing in an award for Unlisted materials…bad news if you put a Vulcanite or Ebonite button on an entry tray for Rubber under Section 15-4!  Did you know?  Goodyear patent rubber buttons were made by various companies, must be back marked to be used under Section 15-4, with the exception that the known unmarked diminutive size Goodyear hard rubber buttons rubber are allowed.  Only 4 unmarked diminutives are known to exist: a rose, beetle, cross and a ball).

I meant to behave today, but there were too many options, bwahaaaa.  *shrugs innocently* LOL
Horn, a keratin, is a natural substance like hair and fingernails.  Horn comes from animals in the form of hooves from cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo as well as the head horns of cattle, horses, bison, water buffalo, unicorns and the shell of a tortoise. 

You caught that... right?  Just testing.... LOL  No?  Well Speed Reader... go back and read the above again.  Bwahaaaa

Yeah, Unicorn horn buttons, with GLITTER OME!  A girl can dream...
Very (very!) Rare Unicorn Horn with glitter OME  
Experts claim some are only made from Unicorn poop.  
Taste testing may be necessary to determine if horn or poop. 
*runs out of the room*
Horn is a natural thermoplastic material, meaning it can be softened and formed by the use of heat and steam and is considered the earliest natural plastic.  
My Most Favorite Horn Button In My Collection *sigh*:  Circus dog jumping through a hoop.
The dog is wearing a Pickelhaube (German Helmet) and coat.
Gilt paint on the molded design.  Sew through.  Wunderbar!
During the early 16th century horn (in the form of tortoise) was softened in hot water and pressed in molds, giving clear, sharp molded images.  Tortoise gave beautifully accurate images of near photographic quality.  The likeness of many a long gone notable royal or wealthy important person exist today in gleaming tortoise, thanks to the early skilled mold making techniques and the ease of molding this material with heat.  

Tortoise Shell Snuff Box with molded bust of  Charles I, c. 1715-1720
(stolen photo of internet - *shrugs*)

Tortoise Shell with inlaid and engraved aluminum
scene of a Palm tree and boat c. 1930-50.  Probably Mexican/South American.
Tortoise remained a popular material until it was banned in 1973 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  Today, many sites such as eBay will not allow any form of Tortoise, of any age, to be sold at all, including antique pieces which were made pre-ban.  This has caused the price of tortoise shell buttons to sky rocket.

For the purpose of my identification of the Lion buttons, only horn from hoof or head horn was being considered, not tortoise.  The NBS Classification & Competition Guidelines (also known as the Blue Book) includes horn, and tortoise in Section 9.

My Lion buttons certainly aren't made of Tortoise, but maybe this pique'd your interest in them! *makes innocent face*
Tortoise is NOT amused by Vicky's bad  pun.
During the early 1700's horn from hooves and head horn started to be molded and used for a variety of items and novelties.  It is documented that in 1712 John O'Brisset of England was making molded horn snuff boxes and from hooves and animal head horns.

Very early utilitarian items from unprocessed horn were made by the millions as spoons, cups, musical instruments and powder horns.  During 1830, Emile Bassot in France patented a process for softening and molding horn buttons.

Horn was, and is still is used in almost every country in the world.  Today interesting buttons from the horns of water buffalo are imported by clothing designers, found at fabric stores or can be purchased on line directly from India and China.  Most are black in color and may have metal wire or pieces embedded in them by heating the horn first.

Most horn has a pretty unmistakable look to it once you handle it a few times and can usually be identified by looking at the back which usually shows the lined striations of the natural horn.  
Paris back mark on black horn.  Note the natural striations that show.
Hunting button of horn with a metal back screw that attaches the molded dog head plaque 
made of horn to the body of the horn button.
Embedded pierced white metal Horseshoe border/OME.

Buffalo Horn:  Really or nahhhh?

Original card of Buffalo Horn ground buttons with tinsel and contrasting stripes of grey horn.
Whistle single hole front sew through.
As the railway expanded, Buffalo hunters invaded the plains in 1830-1885 providing hides and meat to the growing populations in nearby towns and cashed in on the Bison craze.  While they hunted the American Bison to near extinction, at one time nearly every part of the animals were sold and put to use, including the horns and hooves which found their way to utilitarian and decorative uses.  There is no documented proof, however, that the hooves or horns from the Bison were actually used to make buttons.  

Did you know?  Deer and Stag antler is BONE, not horn, and is found in Section 15 (Other Materials) of the Blue Book. Go move them off of your card now... Yes, I'll wait for you.  Don't I always? *grin*

Ground horn composition buttons (shown above) can be found on original cards labeled "BUFFALO HORN" which shows an American Bison as the logo.  The process was first patented June 20, 1871, however the name Buffalo Horn was only applied to the patented process for grinding horn and hooves to a fine powder, and the patent information only refers to use of horn and hoof in a general fashion, and never specifically mentions actual American Bison horn as being used in their manufacture.  Bison horn and hoof is ink black, so it is doubtful that many buttons were made because the ground buttons are found in lighter colors.  

There are no early documents found to date which talk about using American or Canadian Bison horn for buttons, however one reference was found from 1883 for black jewelry from Bison horn, called "English Jet" horn.  It was not noted if it was made specifically from the American Bison.  Buffalo from other countries have also always been referred to as Bison.

The book Heads, Hides and Horns by Larry Barsness stated that while items like combs and buttons were advertised as being made from the horns and hooves of Bison due to public interest, they were generally too brittle and too hard to work into buttons and other horns/hooves were being used for those items.  Most early mention of Bison horn relating to buttons seems to be of the species found in Russian or India.

It was noted by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1852 that Indian tribes were living by pillage due to the lack of available buffalo.  Because one buffalo brought as much as $2-$10 each for the sale of the Robe, carts were loaded by the hunter and skinners quickly, with as many as 100-250 being hauled at a time.  Within a period of 10 years, the bison was hunted to near extinction in the United States and Canada.  A firm buying bison robes (hair on the hide) in Chicago reported that from 1876-1884 they purchased 246,175 robes.  In 1885, there were almost none for them to buy and in 1887, $10 per robe was paid because they had become so scarce.

While buttons from Bison horn may have been made, it's doubtful that during the heyday period that the Bison was aggressively harvested that the hooves and horns were brought in for sale very often to button makers.  Documentation showed that .25 was paid for the inky black horns and hooves at one time (compared to approximately $4-$10 per robe).  Due to the profit of the robe, and the fact that only the thick winter furred hides were in demand, many were skinned quickly in the field during the short season and wagon space was limited to the high dollar robes, requiring that the carcass and other parts were left to rot.

 By 1885 the American Bison was almost completely hunted out of the United States and Canada.  In 1890 there was an estimated 625 Bison left in the US and in 1902 only 72 in the United States and 25 in Canada.

So, after reading The Extermination of the American Bison by William T. Hornaday of 1889, I'm pretty sure that the Buffalo Buttons (like shown on the original card above) were only a manufacturer taking advantage of a gullible pubic who was blindly buying anything that was labeled as a Bison (Buffalo) product.  

Horn can be translucent, and sometimes a bright light will shine through it, especially at the thinner edges or at a thin deep welled center of a sew-through or thin stamped design.  

Natural horn colors range from deep black to brown, red and honey blond to almost white, along with some mottled colors, depending on the species and if taken from head horns or hooves.  Horn also takes well to dye and bleaching.  You can also find decorative finishes applied to horn as well as a host of other materials that were impression inlaid into the surface by means of first heating the horn to a plastic state and pressing metal, shell, etc. into the material.
Pin shank horn with a bone disk flush inlaid in the center.
Sometimes natural horn (and some plastics) are mottled in amber or yellow and brown and can be hard to discern from Tortoise shell.  Careful hot needle testing may be necessary.  A wonderful surprise is that sometimes horn has a thin veneer of tortoise shell laminated to the top of the horn.  It's still classified as horn, but the Tortoise Shell will be considered for extra points on a horn tray.  Tortoise shell usually has richer tones to it than horn.

Many horn buttons will have a ring mold mark on the back and can be back marked with the manufacturer's information or country.  Immense quantities of horn buttons were made in both Italy and France and some of the most beautiful molded horn and interesting pictorial buttons were made by Albert Parent et Cie of France (founded 1825) as well as other French companies.  Many are back marked with company names or initials and the city name of Paris.

Shank types are a knob shape drilled self shank or inserted brass eye, pin shank, lathed or molded self shank, one face hole whistle, 2 and 4 hole sew through (sometimes 3!) as well as inserted metal or eye shanks. 

A hole can be found on the back of some horn buttons is called a pick mark.  Nope, they're not from someone doing hot needle testing and making holes! Workers used a sharp pointed awl like pick to remove the button from the mold while the material was still hot.  

Bug holes, on the other hand, are a dead giveaway in horn (they love munching on horn and tortoise shell buttons) and a sign that there may STILL be a problem.  If you see damage like that, and the button is still worth keeping, it may be best to wrap the button in plastic wrap (to keep out moisture) and seal the button in a Zip Lock bag with Mothballs or put in the freezer (but not if your button has steel OME or a steel shank) for 2-3 days to eliminate the chance that larvae or eggs are still in the button and will attack your collection of horn buttons.  

The damage isn't done by the beetle really, it's done by the hatched larvae left behind by a carpet beetle, also known as the (dreaded) Dermestid!  
Destructive little Dermestid Beetle.  Also known as a Carpet Beetle.
Yup, YUCKY!  *makes the ooky face and wiggles*

They'll also eat wool clothing and rugs, horn, tortoise shell, taxidermy and a host of other natural materials in your home.  The best way to keep them out of your collection is to put your card of horn buttons in a 10 x 13 zip top bag, quarantine new purchases and regularly check them.  If you see small castings (the outer split open and cast off skin of the larvae) in the bottom of a plastic storage sleeve, well, Lucy, you've got a BIG problem!

If you hot tool test horn, it will give you that nasty burned hair or wet feathers smell, usually accompanied by a slight sizzle.  Do this well after lunch.  *makes the yuck face* If you have tortoise shell instead, it will emit a fishy or seaweed like smell.

Taste identification for horn?  Blah!  Never!  LOL  See Dermestid bug above.  Yeah...not happening, so I can't tell you if it tastes like anything at all!  Ha ha...

Composition actually was the first Thermoplastic and the name has been attached to this mix of materials for buttons since the mid 1800's.   A thermoplastic will harden after it is heated, but will become softened again with heat.  

A composite material is any mix that makes a material that becomes different (stronger) than the characteristics of the individual materials.  An example of an elementary and simple composite is mud and straw, which make bricks.

Composition is only a Division I (pre 1918) material (and DID YOU KNOW?  It is the ONLY button material that wasn't made after 1918!).  

Composition is a bit of a catch-all when referring to a mixture of moldable undetermined materials that are comprised of various natural ingredients (rather than synthetic as is Bakelite) which are joined with a binder. Common material ingredients were clay, ground slate and similar items mixed with shellac (a natural polymer) as a binder.  

Most colors can be found, though early composition has a tendency to be dark colors such as black, grey or brown, so look oddities like pink, white, red and green.  It can be polished or may have a dull or rough appearance, almost like stone, and are found in a multitude of shapes with molded patterned tops and pictorials.  Look for mixes of colors or patterned multi-colored tops too.  

One of several of the first shellac compositions is credited to Peter Sylvester of Auburn, N.Y. (who was a superintendent of Woodruff Brothers Button Co., which later became Auburn Button Company and made Duranoid buttons)  as a early replacement for Hard Rubber.  

Sylvester filed 4 patents on May 8, 1880 (229,490; 229,491; 229,492; 229,493; 229,494), all of which were assigned to Woodruff Brothers, which covered everything from cutting the sheets of plastic-like material for die molding, to the embellishment with tinsel, foil, brocade, gold-sand and other decorations to be molded on top of the buttons. 

Some self shanks of composition have a round knock-out pin mark from the molds on the back top of the shank and can be found on Duranoid composition buttons made by the Auburn Button Company of New York.  The company was founded in 1876 as Woodruff's Button Factory by J. Herman Woodruff and later renamed Auburn Button Company around 1878.  Auburn made composition buttons, typewriter keys, gun butts and other articles through about 1915 when Auburn moved into thermoplastics.  

Duranoid was comprised of shellac, cotton flock, pyrite and coloring agents and a woman's head can be found in four sizes and several colors.  Auburn stopped making buttons in 1957 and changed their name to Auburn Plastics Company. This first plastic composition propelled the company into success as a major synthetic plastics manufacturer in 1957.

If you use magnification to view composition buttons, a helpful identification clue to identify composition is that many mixtures will have a sparkle to them from the addition of certain finely crushed mineral additives such as slate or pyrite, while Bakelite, horn, rubber and other thermosets do not exhibit mineral additives. 

Self shanks are common, and they can also be found as sew throughs, with metal cone/hump, inserted wire loops as well as inserted loop with plate.  A patent from 1880 for a Composition button utilizing an unusual bar shank can be seen HERE.  
Competition  card of Composition Buttons.

There are only a few known back marks on composition buttons which include:

  • patent date of November 25, 1919 by Edgar Shantz of the International Button Company.  The large "vulcanized fiber" composition button is plain faced and the finish of the button, which looks very similar to vegetable ivory, is often misidentified by collectors (you can see it, and other composition buttons at the Button Country website, link is at the bottom of this blog).
  • Swans (with a pictorial Swan).
  • Manton's Patent (Dain, Watts and Manton of Birmingham, England, patented around 1863, see clipping photo below).
  • Hood with a pictorial arrow, composition, molded in a "leather knot" look imitator (see the button on the tray of Composition above).  No info. on the company/mark is known by me for sure, but it's possible that this button may actually be rubber/vulcanite, and be made by Hood Rubber Company (J. Hood, Philadelphia, who used an arrow and name Hood as his trademark around 1914.  It was cancelled by the appellate courts as an unusable trademark in 1919 since an arrow was a widely used functional sign).  Many companies that made vulcanite/rubber also made composition.  I need to do some more research and now testing on that button! *sigh*  I'll update this with more info. later!
  • Diatite P.T. 1868 N.E.V.H.C. (New England Vulcanite and Hide Company), pictorial arrow through the word Diatite.  Patent by J.M. Merrick Jr. of Boston, MA, use of patented material was assigned to N.E.V.H.C. of a shellac and diatomaceous composition (silica).  Buttons were specifically named in the patent.  Marketed as similar to Hard Rubber by the company, the patent and name of the material Diatite was also assigned to the Florence Manufacturing company who used the Diatite backmark and date with their company name.  Diatite may have been used by other companies as well.  To my knowledge, only one button has been identified as Diatite being made by N.E.V.H.C. as shown in the September 1959 NBS bulletin, p.226.
List of materials that might have been used in the Composition material of a Manton's Patent button.
This clip from The Year Book of Science and Arts, John Timbs, 1863.
Hot needle testing of composition will give an odor of shellac.  The smell is similar to sealing wax.


Hot Needle Testing*

As the last resort you can identify materials with a hot needle tester.  The best way to identify materials is to use your senses.  Magnification, smell, touch, and even taste. When that fails to provide the necessary clues, the best way to go is an electric hot needle tester. 

While you can rig up something and heat up a sewing needle, it just doesn't get as hot as you need for a very quick and accurate touch of the needle point.  IMHO, just don't do it at all if you aren't willing to spend the money for a good tester with the thin needle point!

Electric units can be found as an inexpensive Pyrography Tool, just make sure you get a very fine pointed needle tip for it.  Trust me, if you are collecting buttons and want to compete, you'll want one to positively identify your "head scratcher" materials so it's worth having this as a backup tool.  That said...

Before testing, ASK other collectors what they know.  Take the button with you to a show or button club.  Post a photo to Button Bytes or email it to another button collector or perhaps ask a Button Seller/Dealer on line if they know. Why put a scar on the back of a good button if you don't need to?  

Get some good books.  Many buttons have already been positively identified!  I can recommend Button Materials A-Z by Jocelyn Howells as one of the best books to start out with.  Used button books can be found on line at eBay and several other book sellers as well as from Button dealers.

Practice on known materials (and save broken and damaged buttons for this purpose).  Do it outside if you can (because you're probably going to stink up your house) and don't do it for too long, as after a while your nose will just go on strike, everything will just smell weird and burned and you'll miss the slight nuance that can change in a material... it's called Nose Blindness.  When I first got my hot needle tester, I did a day of horn composition buttons once.  I was queasy for an hour.  LOL  Also be careful about being allergic to breathing in some things, or it could cause an Asthma attack.  Stop if you have any doubt.

If you must hot needle test:
  • Put the tip in an inconspicuous area on the back, such as sew holes or right next to the shank.
  • Apply very light pressure and a quick touch.  You don't want to burn into/through your button.  Some plastics like Celluloid and Nylon will melt quickly (and NO it won't burst into flame if you hot needle test it! That's a myth perpetuated by people who have NEVER hot needle tested with an electric needle tester before!) so practice pressure on junk buttons first and only hold the tip to the test piece until you get a puff of smoke, sizzling or some crumbing at the touch site.  You should only be making a barely perceptible mark!
  • Do not test transparent buttons (like clear acrylics) unless you're sure your test site won't show from the front!
  • Hot needle testers, holders and replacement tips can be seen and purchased HERE at Button Images.  Please tell her I sent you (I get nothing, just tell her I said hello!).  Good info. is on the site also!
  • More great information on hot needle testing can be found in the National Button Society 9-A Synthetic Polymers Handbook.  It is available for sale at the NBS website.

It's not just for coffee anymore...

Unglazed Tile/Coffee Cup Test
Many materials like Whitby Jet, Vulcanite/Ebonite, Black Glass and Gutta Percha can be ruled out by also utilizing the unglazed back of a tile, or simply the unglazed bottom foot of a coffee cup.  Just use a white ceramic.  

I used a coffee cup 16 years ago to figure out that one of the buttons that had just arrived in an antique button lot from England wasn't just GLASS.  I actually had a Division I carved WHITBY JET button sitting in the pile of old buttons! (WOO HOO!). That's a blog post story for another time...

If you test by scraping, use the back edge or side edge of the button and make several light pressure passes until a mark appears.  Go lightly and increase pressure as needed to get a mark.
  • Coal and Anthracite will make a black mark.
  • Jet will make a very dark brown mark.
  • Black and Brown Plastics/Synthetic Polymers will leave a light grayish to black mark, sometimes leaving tiny bits of the plastic behind.
  • Vulcanite/Ebonite will leave a brown mark which remains on the tile if wiped with your thumb (much lighter than jet, but similar enough to do other testing to confirm, such as a smell test).
  • Gutta Percha makes a light color (either black or brown depending on coloration) which seems to wipe away off of the ceramic.
  • Black glass will not leave a mark.

My Conclusion (after sniffing, scraping, magnifying, licking and looking at the Lions of Belfort)

1.    Visual:  These have definitely discolored on the front to a chocolate brown.  The backs are very shiny, and significantly darker.  The backs are more reflective, almost black and generally unscuffed when compared to the fronts.  It's obvious they've had a lot of exposure to ultraviolet (sun) light and shows that they carry some significant age to them.  Some areas on the front of one button show a change in color only on a small portion of the button.  Gutta Percha, Vulcanite (and even Bakelite) would all discolor.
2.  T-Pin Test:  A T-pin stands up in the material.
3.    Design:  They're clearly molded.   The design in general is clearly a cousin to a metal Division I button.
4.    Construction: The pinned construction and shank indicate that most likely they're Division I (made before 1918).  Buttons were considered to be mass produced by machine methods after that date.  This kicks out materials like Bakelite and Galalith and other synthetic polymers.
5.    Taste: Okay, I licked one... *shrugs*  I got nothing.  GAH!  No salty taste that could indicate Gutta Percha (though remember, not all G.P. will be salty).
6.  Sound:  They make a light clink noise, indicative of a brittle molded material.
7.    There are scratches/scuffing that has produced light color small scratches on the faces and edges.  The light color marks seem to remove with just a brisk finger rubbing. They cleaned up nicely with a barely dampened microfiber rag, and a brown coloration was left on the rag.  I made sure that they were dried quickly.  The button with bad light colored scratches buffed up pretty well with a barely dampened Magic Eraser and very light rubbing.  It also left a brown coloration on the Magic Eraser.  These were obviously banged about during their long life (heck, they're over 100 years old!), and probably lived with other buttons or with other items for a long time.  It's amazing how one polished right back up considering how they looked to begin with.
8.    Tile Test:  They leave a light colored brown streak, consistent with Vulcanite/Ebonite.
Scraping on an unglazed portion of a coffee mug.
9.    Smell:  Even without rubbing, there was a acrid rubber smell.  A brisk 10 second thumb rub gives a very strong acrid rubbery smell.  That leaves out early Thermoplastics, Composition, Horn,   The obvious is Vulcanite/Ebonite.
10.    Hot Needle Test:  Nope, not going to do one.  No need after the smell I get from just rubbing on them.  Besides, by the time I dug out my hot needle tester, I'd already figured it out because of the crazy SMELL the emit when friction rubbed, I'm convinced they are... 

 *click above on the video to hear the drum roll*  bwahaaaaa

So, there we have it.  Not only a new name for these scarce guys (The Lion of Belfort - well, I feel almost like I gave birth to them after all that research, so I get to name them!) but now I’ve got a positive identification for a terrific odd material added to my collection.  I confidently place them as Division I (pre 1918), the same as their metal cousins shown above.  


The buttons had some signs that they hadn’t been treated well.  I found a great blog which talks about cleaning Vulcanite/Ebonite pipe stems, so I’ll take a clue from them when I spruce these up a bit


Lots of folks are selling old brown molded things with no idea what they are.  I go look around the interwebz for old materials to see what people are selling.  I put in Gutta Percha and I see a wood button advertised as being a G.P. button, ditto for a Burwood bird button identified as Gutta Percha (ugh!  I sent a very gentle message about the button and identified it for them, and it's still listed as Gutta Percha!).  Also misidentified as Gutta Percha were buttons that were clearly made of horn, bakelite, vegetable Ivory, glass, plastic and others.  If it's old and brown, it must be made of Gutta Percha... riiiiiiiiiiiiight? *rolls eyes*

Whitby Jet is often when it's actually bog oak pieces, horn, bakelite, composition and (especially) black glass.  

Bakelite and other plastics listed as Vulcanite.  Ugh!

What's a button collector to do?  Well, LEARN how to identify your materials!  While it's impossible to 100% identify something by a photo when you're buying on the internet, there ARE clues that you can use to help you get a pretty good idea.  Ask for a photo of the back and shank.  When in doubt, ask the seller if they'll take it back if it's not the correct material before you plunk down your hard earned button funds!  Take a chance IF it's not too much money (I do this, and 90% of the time, I SCORE!).

Button books are expensive, but a great investment and they can be a big help in identifying materials.  Most of the old books have errors in them (especially in materials identification), but you'll still come out way ahead by investing in a few.  I'll do a post soon with a listing of what's in my library, what my "Go To" books are, what's the best to have at the beginning, what to buy when you have some extra bucks and what vintage books can be helpful.

National Button Society Bulletins are a great source of information, and have been published since 1942.  If you are a member, most of the past bulletins and special articles are searchable by keywords and are accessible to read on line.  


A big thanks to all of you who took time to send me messages about the last post! I LOVE hearing from you! 

I KNOW this month's post was long (sorry!) but I wanted to cover as much for new collectors and put in a few interesting things that some of us oldies may have missed, or maybe had forgotten. *grin*  Besides, this blog on buttons is really for ME.  It's BUTTON THERAPY.

And if it helps you too... well, bonus!

Once I get tapping on the keyboard, well, sometimes there's no stopping me.  Some of the early Button Bytes members will remember the Howdy Reports on Wednesdays.  Yah, good times.  LOL  My best button buddy tells me to just get it over with, and write a book... hmmmm... Ha ha... funny girl!  I think this is more fun, and besides... I have no editor suggesting corrections, or cramping my feel free to correct my writing and bad grammar... silently, in your own mind.  *grin*

 If you have any ideas that you'd like to see written about, have a question about a button (I love button mysteries!), spot an error (that isn't my horrid grammar) or just want to say hello, contact me using the Contact Form widget thingy on this page, to the right or leave a comment on the page, even if just to say you were here!

See you next time, when we'll look through my library of reference books.  Also, stay tuned for a look at some of the wonderful (and weird) button from a local collection I just bought, where we'll look at some of them and I'll tell you about my experience buying someone's button collection!  Scary, crazy, wonderful!!  Besides, that collection is my excuse for this second part for being so late!  

It's a good one... riiiiiiight??
Suggested Reading:  Button Materials A-Z Identification Guide by Jocelyn Howells.  BTW, I've learned more over the last 16 years about materials from "Button Joss" than probably any other button person I know, and she gave me a big passion for materials.  Thanks Joss! 

Button Materials A-Z: Identification Guide.  Self Published by Jocelyn Howells and can be purchased  directly from the author  

(and NO I don't get a red cent (or buttons) from ANY link on this blog page!)

P.S.  More useful materials info. and button fun at: The Plastics Historical Society - Timeline and at the wonderful Button Country website.