The Buttonhook Society
Welcome to the homepage of the Buttonhook Society, and The Boutonneur.
Collecting Buttonhooks
The Victorian love of innovation led to the production of a great variety of tools and gadgets designed to make life simpler and to highlight the sophistication and refinement of the owner. One of these tools was the buttonhook. Although almost unknown now, back in the 1890s it was a common household tool. The earliest known reference to the buttonhook was in 1611:
'Boutonneur: A Buttoner; or an instrument wherewith buttons are pulled through their o'er-strait holes.'

Buttonhooks came in a variety of designs. One common design was a handle similar in shape to a knife handle into which a steel hook on a long slender shaft was inserted. To use the implement on a shoe, one firmly grasped the handle, and then inserted the steel hook through the eyelet, grasping the button and pulling it through. Unfortunately, aggressive use of the buttonhook often did more harm than good as it could tear the buttonhole or pull out the button. Not only were the shoes and garments damaged: sometimes a straightened out or distorted hook on a buttonhook indicates that the tool was subject to rough or repeated use.
The buttonhook was generally the size of a fork although it ranged in size from less than an inch to around 2 feet in length. Most were used for shoe buttons, spats and gaiters, although the smaller types ("glovehooks") were used for buttons on dresses, sleeves and men's stiff collars. Many glovehooks have a small ring on the handle end. This was for a lady to attach the item to her chatelaine at her belt, or on a necklace. Some of the folding glove hooks (bow style or penknife style) also had rings and could be affixed to a watch chain as a fob.
In some cases the buttonhook is designed with a loop instead of a hook, but it performs the same function. The loop hooks were often associated with the use on a man's starched collar - and simple steel advertising loop style hooks were sold as "collar buttoners". Some advertised collars or laundry starch.
Although buttonhooks were in existence through the 17th and 18th centuries among the upper classes, buttonhooks prior to the industrial revolution are rarely found today. Unless they were made of a fine material such as gold or silver, they may have been discarded. There are still a few examples of early to mid 19th century wooden buttonhooks with elaborately turned handles. Most appeared when the feminine high buttoned boot became popular in the 1880s. Previously, ladies' boots were made of soft leather, but a new fashion demanded stiff leather boots that would fit tightly and show off the shape of the ankle. New industrial developments such as the invention of a machine that could sew buttonholes led to the increased production of boots with rows of tiny buttons. The growing middle classes were an important market for these fashions. By the 1880s, gloves and garments began to feature more buttons, especially long rows of buttons on the front or back of a dress, or on a pair of long gloves. All of these factors resulted in an increased demand for buttonhooks.
Buttonhooks can usually be dated between 1880 and 1915 and the majority found today date to between 1890 and 1910. The surprising thing about buttonhooks is the variety of designs, sizes and materials utlized in their construction. There was a buttonhook for every taste, from the simple steel wire loop to 9K gold. The Victorian love of invention led to numerous buttonhook patents and attempts to combine the buttonhook with other useful objects such as the curling iron, can opener, tobacco cutter, nail file, shoe horn, scissors, and pen knife. Folding and retractable buttonhooks were available. A sterling model includes a buttonhook on one end and a shoe horn on the other end. The majority of the folding and combined types were inexpensively made in steel, although some were made in sterling or finer materials.
Sterling buttonhooks may be found in a number of patterns. There were handles shaped as animal heads, popular characters, and cherubs. Many had a repousse floral pattern. Most British sterling buttonhooks were assayed in Birmingham, England and usually include their maker's mark. Other assay offices included London, Sheffield, and Chester. Well-known and prolific British makers included Adie & Lovekin, Levi & Salaman, Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co, and Crisford & Norris. These are only a few of the hundreds of British makers who applied their own maker's marks to their wares. William Comyns was a notable British designer from the Victorian era, and Liberty & Co. produced distinctive stylized Art Nouveau buttonhook designs.
View British Sterling Buttonhook Photographs
American sterling buttonhooks were often marked with just "Sterling" and no indication of a maker. However, some were marked - these included Gorham, Tiffany, Foster & Bailey (Rhode Island), Whiting, Kirk (Baltimore), Shiebler, Lapierre, and Unger Brothers. Shiebler sterling is famous worldwide and his buttonhooks featured unique Art Nouveau natural forms. A detailed analysis of his contribution and the various designs available was included in a volume of the Buttonhook Society's compendium. View American Sterling Buttonhook Photographs
Both British and American manufacturers offered the option of purchasing the buttonhook as a part of a matched dresser set. These sets included a manicure knife, shoe horn, letter opener, cuticle knife, scissors, small bottles, and other items set in a specially fitted case. The number of components in a dresser set varied from just two (usually a buttonhook and a shoehorn) to a dozen or more different tools. Sets were also produced in other materials such as ivory, bone, plastics, faux horn, and abalone shell. The British sterling sets generally had a leather case with velvet lining and indentations that held each item safely in place. American sets were often encased in celluloid boxes with decoupaged floral detail. In many cases the sterling sets may be found in excellent condition - indicating their history as a prized gift.
The range of materials used for buttonhook construction was not limited to sterling. Natural materials were also used such as mother-of-pearl, antler, ivory, jet, bone, wood, tortoiseshell or abalone shell. Other metals used include brass, german silver, aluminum, nickel plated steel, sterling and gold. American sterling hooks are often decorated with inlaid amethyst, garnet or turquoise. Some hooks of British origin feature handles completely made of cornelian, amethyst, moss agate, or onyx. Some of these have a sterling silver ferrule and other fittings. Another category is brass with stone - these included figural handles with a stone ball incorporated within the design. One type was a thistle with a coloured agate ball and a brass finial. Brass & Stone Buttonhook Photographs

Other hooks collected include "trench art" from World War I made from salvaged battlefield metal debris. One type utilized the bullet and shell casing as a handle - these items were polished up and welded. In most cases a flattened uniformed button was affixed to the top of the handle, and along the side of the handle. Some are engraved with personal messages and a date as they were given by soldiers as gifts to friends and family. Some are engraved with battles: "Verdun" 1916, or personalized "To Elizabeth from Ross / Vosges 1918" - a site where Americans fought, and also "To my wife Ivah from Sgt. R. G. Foster, Shoreham August 17th, 1917 with Canadian buttons. The last buttonhook hook although customized has appeared in the same shape and size with a Shoreham engraving, suggesting that someone near the camp (possibly a civilian) was making up these buttonhooks and personalizing them for the men passing through. Occasionally this type of buttonhook was further improved upon with elaborate stippled engraving such as was normally found on the larger Trench art shell vases. Debate continues whether the items were made by soldiers or by civilians. It may be that the answer is both: soldiers were not always in the trenches, and rotated from "rest camp" in outlying villages. Engineer and service battalions may have had equipment to produce the hooks. However, time was usually limited as rest camp actually involved training and marches. It is clear that after the war civilians produced trench art through the 1920s and 1930s as souvenirs for visitors to the battlefields.
Another type of hook falling under the "trench art" label and probably appearing from the war period to as late as the 1940s was the "washer" hook. This hook was hand assembled with rings of plastics and various metals, and then polished smooth. These may have been made both by soldiers (see our Message board where an article is posted about a 1918 example of such a buttonhook was made with remnants of a WWI pilot's downed plane), and by civilians. Most examples have plastics in rust, ivory, and dark colours, but occasionally there are examples found with red, turquoise and brighter plastics. Some have a metal finial which has been elaborately turned and shaped.

Another collectible topic is advertising. Many advertising buttonhooks were purchased from manufacturers who stamped the business' name and address on the hook's handle. The merchant then distributed the hooks to his customers, usually at no charge. The buttonhook was formed from a piece of wire, with a looped handle flattened and pressed with the advertising information. Handle shapes varied - many were in the shape of a ring, a peanut, a teardrop or a loop. There were also advertising collar buttoners with a loop instead of a hook. The advertising went on the straight handle. A more elaborate type was molded with a standard floral pattern and included a promotional slogan and better description of the goods for sale. These buttonhooks mainly appeared in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Germany. Most bear an 1895 patent date and are nickel plated steel.
The most unusual advertising hooks have handles which are celluloid pinbacks manufactured in New Jersey by Whitehead & Hoag. The circular celluloid button has usually had a colourful advertising illustration. Buttonhooks were made for companies such as Keen's Mustard, Sanford & Chase Coffee. View Advertising Buttonhook Photographs

The impact of the first World War led to less restrictive clothing as many women joined the workforce as a part of the war effort. However, button boots, buttoned gloves and spats continued to be worn through the war years and buttonhooks were still produced during the 1920s and 1930s. Men's spats were usually in dark colours or white, while women's spats at that time came in colours to compliment their garments. Children's leather boots still continued to have buttons in the 1920s as it was thought that the tight leather strengthened the ankles.
The most common buttonhook materials at that time were early plastics such as celluloid, bakelite, french ivory, and marbled plastics. Handles were produced to resemble tortoiseshell, amber and ivory. Today many are still fooled by the "French ivory" mark - actually plastic. Maker marks include Dupont, Pyralin Ivory, etc. Figural plastics were made in the United States. Two types are commonly seen: the Jockey and the Leg in Buttoned Boot. These came in a number of colours such as turquoise, fuschia, red, ivory, and also in marbled multi-coloured plastic. Another plastic figural has a horse head. This is another subject covered in detail in the Buttonhook Society's Compendium.

Sterling buttonhooks continued to be made - although the designs were streamlined to reflect the Art Deco aesthetic. By the late 1920s footwear no longer had quite as many buttons and pumps were commonly worn, but the buttonhook continued to be used in rural areas where styles didn't change as quickly. The trend was toward garments which required minimal maintenance and allowed easy movement. Flapper's shoes often had just one button to fasten. In addition, the invention of the zipper accelerated the decline in use of the buttonhook. A modern version of the buttonhook is still sold today and designed to aid dressing for individuals with physical disabilities.
Collecting hooks is a fascinating and rewarding hobby. Serious collectors from around the world belong to The Buttonhook Society established in 1979 in Maidstone, Kent. The society publishes an informative colour magazine called "The Boutonneur" six times a year for members. In addition, the society mounts well-attended yearly exhibitions in locations throughout Great Britain. The Buttonhook Society publishes an illustrated Compendium of detailed information on buttonhooks. This has been a most worthy archival project as it catalogues many of the different variations of buttonhooks, and has built a list of all the makers and manufacturers of buttonhooks as well as patents and registration numbers for different buttonhook designs.