Jamestown Rediscovery’s collection contains approximately 850 cataloged buttons. These small, personal items are one of the most common dress accessories and clothing fasteners recovered archaeologically. Almost all material types are represented among the buttons found at Jamestown, along with many different forms, attachment styles, and decorative elements. Though a vast majority of these date to the 17th century, buttons from Jamestown Island’s later occupation and visitation also appear in the archaeological record. Careful what you lose when you visit, it may one day become part of the archaeological collection!
Approximately two-thirds of the buttons recovered archaeologically are 17th century buttons that curators refer to as doublet buttons. These buttons are made from a wide variety of material types, but all share a vaguely spherical form. Though there are some flat-faced buttons during this time, flatter button shapes don’t come into fashion and take over until the 18th century. The 18th century also saw sew-through buttons emerging, a further departure from the general form and attachment style of their predecessors. Buttons of both of these later forms are represented in the collection, indicating that some individuals wearing (and losing!) buttons were present on Jamestown Island after the capitol moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg in 1699.
Though fairly common on 18th and 19th century sites, very few bone or shell buttons have been recovered from Jamestown contexts. Though this could be due to poor preservation, it is more likely a result of low population numbers during the time periods that these buttons are typically associated with. Prosser buttons are the most abundant post-fort period buttons in the collection. Invented around 1840, these buttons were made of a high fired ceramic and were a sew-through style. Most of the approximately 50 prosser buttons in the Jamestown collection are white, which is by far the most common color. However, two cream-colored prosser buttons, two black prosser buttons, and a singular green prosser button have also been recovered thus far.
Jamestown’s collection contains just a few post-17th century glass buttons. Of these, two are particularly interesting — a black glass Victorian button and an early 20th century Carnival glass button. During the Victorian era, accessories such as buttons and jewelry were made out of a shiny black glass in an effort to give the appearance of jet. This practice was most common in mourning jewelry and attire, though not exclusive to it. Queen Victoria’s own long-lasting mourning attire ensured that black was the height of fashion at the time. Perhaps this black glass button adorned the clothing of one of the early founders of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, who purchased 22.5 acres on Jamestown Island in the late 1890s. Carnival glass dates to the early 20th century and is a type of iridescent glass that comes in a variety of exciting colors. Though the most recognizable pieces are larger items such as vases, accessories such as buttons and hat pins were also produced. Jamestown’s carnival glass button features a black leaf and acorn against a shimmering pink and green striated background. Jamestown has been host to many in the 20th century, including some larger groups to celebrate various anniversary years. More than likely, this carnival glass button was lost by a visitor to the Island, perhaps celebrating the site’s history, just like we do today.