Artifact of the Day for May 2nd, 2023 – Gilt Metal Button

The artifact of the day was discovered by Michelle during pedestrian survey of the field in which our site is located. It is a shanked button, with what looks like an embossed decoration and traces of gilt on the face. Based on the size, I think it is probably a coat button.

All-metal buttons were some of the first commercially manufactured buttons, and first became popular in the 1760s. These buttons were a key component of men’s fashion, and were often plated or gilded base metals, to make them look like more expensive silver or gold buttons. Earlier buttons were often made out of pewter, but that falls out of popularity around the 1830s. Another popular choice was iron, but based on the verdigris we can see (and no rust), I am guessing our button is probably made of brass or copper.

Metal buttons were at their peak in the late 18th and early 19th century, and adorned clothing items like coats, waistcoats, breeches and shoes. Of possible interest to us is the fact that gilded buttons were de rigeur from the 1830s to the 1850s. Gilt buttons were made by brushing a metal button with a mixture of gold and mercury, which was then fired to set the gilding.

There was no guarantee that your fancy gilded buttons weren’t some cut-rate imitation, as some manufacturers would short the approved 1/96th ounce of gold per 1 inch button. The Metal Button Act of Parliament (1796) required manufacturers to stamp identification marks on the backs of buttons so that buyers knew what they were getting. Gilt buttons meant they had the approved amount of gold, but if a button was stamped “Double Gilt” or “Treble Gilt” it meant it has double or triple the legal minimum of gold applied to the button, and thus presumably would wear better and deserve the higher price.

Anno Regni GEORGII III. tricesimo sexto. An Act to regulate the making and vending of Metal Buttons; and to prevent the Purchasers thereof from being deceived in the real Quality of such Buttons.

Metal Button Act of Parliament (1796 c. 60)

Further analysis after a gentle cleaning in the lab will be able to tell us if we have any text on the back, and if the button was cast, or stamped and a brazed shank added. We might also be able to better determine what the design is on the face of the button.

Round metal button with traces of gilding on the surface.
Traces of gilding have survived!
Back of button showing a patina of verdegris and the shank.
The back of the button might have some text on it, and we need to check out how the shank is formed, but that will be after a gentle cleaning.

A great start to our 2023 season!

One thought on “Artifact of the Day for May 2nd, 2023 – Gilt Metal Button

  1. Great artifact!! So fascinating , and good eyes!


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