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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Do Buttons Have Lead in Them?

“Do buttons have lead in them? I’m concerned about my child chewing on them.” The staff of the Newton Falls Public Library can understand parents worrying about the items little children put in their mouths, especially small items which may also be accidently swallowed.

While browsing through the book, About Buttons: a collector's guide: 150 A.D. to the present by Peggy Ann Osborne, the author describes 18th century buttons made of “embroidered fabrics, assorted metals, mother-of-pearl, glass, porcelain, and pottery”; some with “paintings on ivory, vellum, or paper (pg. 9).” In the chapter there was no mention of the types of metal with the exception of silver and copper. Some materials used in the 19th century were silver, brass, pewter, glass, and pearl. As we continued looking we also noticed buttons made of wood, steel, vegetable ivory, plastic, and nylon. This book is organized by years, styles, and countries but unfortunately, not by materials. Button, Button: identification and price guide by Peggy Ann Osborne has a chapter, Materials from A – Z. Almost 60 different materials are listed as being used in button making. Some of the more unusual are alligator skin, bamboo, linoleum, rubber, snakeskin, and straw. The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons: now with values by Sally C. Luscomb is set up alphabetically. There is no listing for lead between Le Chic (a trade name) and League of American Wheelman (Bicycle Buttons).

Our search continued online to  which sells Civil War relics and antiquities. The page on buttons has Civil War era or earlier coat weight buttons made of lead,  “said to have served dual purpose.”  Ian Kelly-Military Insignia site notes “From 1830 onwards, Regular Army infantry regiments that had been wearing silver buttons changed to gilt buttons and thereafter, silver buttons were mainly worn by Militia and Volunteer regiments, and sometimes by pipers of regular regiments. Other Ranks buttons were made of lead or pewter until 1855 when brass was introduced.” It would seem that buttons most likely to be made of lead are military.

Desrues, a French company manufactures “the most precious jewellery and buttons for Chanel, its biggest client, as well as for Louis Vuitton and many others.” Their operations focus on ”Moulding and casting metals, glass enamelling, machining wood, remodelling resins, polishing, soldering, lacquering, varnishing, gilding, silver plating, working with lead glass and threading pearls . . .” Apparently, some buttons for modern high end designers do have lead in them.

If their child continues to chew on buttons and our patron is unable to clearly determine what buttons are presently manufactured to have lead, there are lead testing kits available.

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