The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 13, Number 24, June 13, 2010, Article 15


Dick Johnson submitted this follow-on item to his earlier piece on the close relationship between coining and button-making. -Editor

Good Wife and I wanted to do something different last weekend. We chose to attend a button show. Whoa! What has that to do with numismatics? Plenty. Read on.

As we approached the registration table and learned the cost of admission I asked, perhaps out of habit, "Do you have a senior citizen discount?" The attendant smiled and said "This is a grandmother hobby, we charge extra for anyone under thirty." I smiled in return to her humor.

True enough as I glanced across the bourse area, dealer and collector were all over fifty. Wife and I qualified.

Buttons are displayed on cards housed in plastic tubs on dealer tables. I knew what I was seeking. "Where are your Scovill buttons?" I asked the first dealer as we approached her table. My goal was to view important buttons made by Scovill Manufacturing Company of Waterbury. At this show we were a dozen miles from the very spot where the Scovill factory had been located, now the Brass City Mall.

I thought someone from the area might be an expert on Scovill buttons I could meet and talk to. We pawed through the first tub dealer lady directed us to. Scovill buttons were few in that tub. But dealer lady's husband brought over another tub he went through. He found more than we did and we made a courtesy purchase of four Scovill buttons and moved on to another table.

Directed there to a tub of Military topical interest I pulled up a card with a dozen buttons attached. Button enthusiasts collect by topics much like token and medal collectors.

This card had descriptions written in a circular manor around the button. I read "Watchcase," on one, a term I had never encountered for buttons. "Pardon me, can I pick your brain? What does watchcase mean?" I asked the man behind the table who I had assumed was the husband-helper to this dealer lady. Boy was I wrong. I had encountered the expert I was seeking. Instead of being from the local area, he was from Tennessee!

Watchcase is a flat surface with beveled edge, he explained, much like watches of the day. After an exchange of several more questions and answers he came around from behind the table and sat next to me, leaving his wife to wait on other customers. We conversed for forty-five minutes. By sheer happenstance I had encountered the expert I was seeking.

I learned so much from him. He had been a professional geologist, an educator, and had left both fields to become a full-time button dealer. He knew Scovill very well, of course. And the other button manufacturers in the Waterbury area. Button collectors divide the field in two categories: Uniform buttons, and Dress-wear buttons. Scovill had produced uniform buttons for nearly 200 years, dominating the field.

Scovill had also produced tokens as well, virtually all the Hard Time tokens of the 1830s, and tons of Civil War tokens three decades later. It had also supplied the U.S. Mint with blanks. It made the planchets for the 1856-58 Flying Eagle cents when U.S. converted from large cents to small cents, and blanks for nickel coins. It struck coins for foreign governments a hundred years before Franklin Mint did. When the Philadelphia Mint learned it could not produce the tens of thousands of award medals for the Columbian Exposition it turned to Scovill to produce what it could not do -- a medal with an insert die to create raised lettering of the recipient's name.

Scovill was America's secret mint. It was the leading metalworker of New England, perhaps of all America for most of the 19th century. It struck its first token in 1829 and transportation tokens right up to World War II. And when it wasn't striking numismatic items it was making buttons.

There are three types of metal buttons: one-piece, two-piece, three-piece. One-piece has the fastener attached to the back. A two-piece has the front crimped around a back plate. A three-piece has a metal front, a back-plate and a band to hold the two together. Scovill had made all three, but was THE maker of two-piece buttons.

They had produced buttons for thousands of clients. Each required their own design. Each design required a unique die. I had examined hundreds of Scovill dies, for previous research, and had handled actual Scovill dies in a number of museums.

Then I asked my dealer-expert if he had any Mathew Boulton of Birmingham buttons. He did! He pulled out one that predated Boulton's establishment of the Soho Mint. And predated his own mechanism of button making and the Industrial Revolution.. It was larger than normal -- intended for a wealthy person -- and hand made. It had a dozen faceted bosses inset in a circle in a basin-shaped base. You could see the hand work file marks on the back.

As numismatic encyclopedias Ewald Junge once said: the best private coin and token makers were first button makers. This included Mathieu, Mercie & Mouterde in Lyon, Roche in Dublin, in addition, of course, to Boulton in Birmingham. The technology was similar for both fields, as was the equipment -- die making, rolling mills, blanking and striking presses. New technology also advanced along similar lines for both industries.

As I departed the show with a handful of new purchases I reiterated to Good Wife, there really is a close relationship between buttons and coins. A statement I had made previously in The E-Sylum (July 21, 2008, vol 11, no 29, art 13).

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see: DICK JOHNSON: BUTTONS HAVE CLOSE RELATIONSHIP TO COINS (


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Wayne Homren, Editor

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