German glass buttons

People sometimes email me to ask about buttons—if I know who manufactured them or how old they are? I hate to disappoint but I usually can't tell, especially if the buttons are loose (i.e. not on their original cards). Carded buttons sometimes provide clues, although even they can be vague. Some don't have the manufacturer, some don't have a price. One sure identifier is when the card is labeled Made in Germany - US-Zone.

If you remember from high school history class, Germany was divided into four administrative zones after World War II, one for each of the allied powers. Germans were prohibited from exporting products during this time but the U.S. allowed the export of some items, including buttons, as long as they were labeled US Zone. I believe the U.S. was importing many of their buttons by this time so not being able to get buttons from Germany would have been a real problem in the clothing industry. Any buttons labeled this way can be dated to a pretty narrow time period—1945 to 1949.

Hand-painted white glass hearts from the US Zone.

After 1950, the U.S, French, and British zones combined to form Western Germany. More about that in a minute. The area of North Bavaria, a glass- and button-making center since the 13th century, became part of Czechoslovakia and Germans who lived there were forced to leave the country. With very short notice, too, so much of the glass and button-making equipment, including molds and glass, had to be left behind.

Black glass buttons with painted gold detailing.

But, the workers who fled (and who had centuries of experience and know-how) quickly set up new workshops and began manufacturing and exporting glass buttons to the rest of Europe and the U.S. These glass makers used the same techniques as before—buttons pressed in iron molds, trimmed and ground by hand, and polished in a tumbler. The introduction of new techniques and paints made Western Germany the glass button capital of the world during the 1950s and early ‘60s. As plastic and metal buttons became more popular in the 1970s, the supply of German glass buttons dwindled; most of the ones you find today are from the 1950s and 60s.

The painted details on these buttons is amazing!

Back in Czechoslovakia under Soviet control, button-making was reduced to a few state-run factories and marketed outside the country by a single state-run export company. It wasn't until the fall of the Iron Curtain in the 1990s that the newly-formed Czech Republic opened up again to trade with the West. Button factories were given new life and the old molds were dusted off and put back into use.

These are the most beautiful blue—like the sky on a clear day.

I'm simplifying here, of course, and trying to condense years into a few paragraphs. History is often more complicated than we know and we usually hear only one side of the story. If you'd like to read a more comprehensive history of glass buttons, Jane Johnson's A History of Bohemian Glass Buttons published by Bead & Button Magazine, is a good place to start.

These white glass buttons have what's called 'salt' on the edges—tiny bits of green and gold glass fired to the surface.


Vicki W said...

Very interesting - thank you!

Corinna said...

wow, the buttons are really pretty! what i think is kinda funny is that i have seen many people present something vintage from germany on their blog, while it's really hard to find good vintage things in germany...

janet said...

Given the turmoil that Germany went through during the war and afterward, that's probably not so surprising. I'm sure a lot of nice vintage things were lost, sold, stolen, or destroyed. And nice buttons were probably made more for export than for the population of Germany, who likely couldn't afford them at the time.

I'm not sure the average person here could afford them either. I do find them occasionally in my travels but they're pretty rare here, too. I just got lucky with this last batch I bought :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Janet,

We "met" via the Cottage Living forum years ago, and are link partners (my online shop is currently down for redesign).

Anyway, I wanted to stop by and say "Thank you!" because I just made my first redwork dishtowel following your Stitch School instructions. Yay! I love the look and will be making more.

Anyway, thanks so much for helping all us newbies with Stitch School - and I hope you have a great day!


Stacey said...

Aren't they pretty.