Treble Gilt Button
Posted On: 06/08/2018 - 11:52am, Posted By: Other
This post is guest authored by our Archaeology Intern, Drew Timmons.
During a recent Cincinnati Museum Center salvage excavation of an 1830s refuse deposit located at Johnson Hills Park in Anderson Township, Ohio, an interesting artifact was recovered: a 19th century button measuring approximately 2.5 cm in diameter.
You may assume that something as ordinary and commonplace as a button cannot hold much useful information for archaeologists, but this is untrue. Through time, buttons have been made from many materials, such as bone, metal, shell, ceramic, wood, plastic, and glass, and can help archaeologists identify variation in production styles, changes in fashion, economic status, or temporal information about the context in which they are discovered. For example, buttons entered a golden age in the 18th century, when designs and decorations became extremely ornate. This is because many skilled artists entered the picture as button manufacturers in the 1700s, and were often commissioned to make buttons for wealthy patrons as a side job.
At around the same time, buttons experienced a renaissance as signifiers of social class. The number of buttons ornamenting a person’s clothing, as well as raw material and decoration were social cues that indicated affiliation with the upper or lower class. In general, people of lower economic status wore plain buttons because they often made their own by hand, while wealthy individuals could afford ornate buttons and frequently purchased them from specialty companies or commissioned artists. Similarly, based on size, material, and symbolism, buttons also conveyed important military information, including nationality, military branch, and rank.
The brass button found during the Johnson Hills Park salvage project is known as a treble gilt button. The first gilt buttons were manufactured in Birmingham, England between 1797 and 1800, and were desired by many Americans due to their affordability and grandeur. It wasn't until around 1810 that Americans began to manufacture gilt buttons after their method of manufacture was acquired from the British.
The process for manufacturing gilt buttons is called gilding, and required adding five grains of gold per gross, or twelve dozen buttons, to a mixture of mercury. The mixture was then hand brushed onto the surface of brass buttons, which were then put into a furnace to cook. A button only brushed once was considered gilt, but by repeating the gilding process, buttons could also be double, or treble (triple) gilt. Eventually the gilding process became so widely known that button manufacturers in England petitioned Parliament to pass legislation to standardize the manufacture of gilded buttons because numerous manufacturers were misrepresenting the amount of gold in their product. The standard amount of gold for a one inch gilded button was 1/96th of an ounce, and buttons were marked with identification symbols to indicate that their buttons met or exceeded the standard amount. Understandably then, manufacturer marks are extremely useful to archaeologists because they can indicate information about manufacturing, trade, and economic status.
So in the case of the brass button recovered at Johnson Hills Park, treble gilt means that the button contains triple the legal minimum of gold. With the Johnson Hills Park button being treble gilt, we can assume that the owner was somewhat wealthy and that this button was most likely imported from England. It is unlikely that people with lower economic status would have been afforded the luxury to import buttons from abroad.
As you can see, buttons offer a wealth of information about the archaeological record. They are not just interesting curiosities, but can be used for relative dating of archaeological deposits, identifying fashion trends, or elucidating long distance trade networks. This particular button was found near a historic house, but who knows what could be buried underneath your house. Could there be hidden treasures beneath your feet?