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  • Writer's pictureDebora Ellen Blodgett

A Fascinating Fastener: The Button Hook ~An Essential Garment Tool

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Detailed Image of a Double Buttonhook

A tool for every task. This is not a difficult concept for us to imagine given the myriad of tools that exist today. However, it was no different one hundred fifty years ago. In fact, small tools existed for purposes we wouldn’t even think to consider today. It is hard to imagine, for example, a tool specifically used to assist in fastening buttons. Yet, not only did this tool exist, it was used daily by adults and children to ease the chore of buttoning and unbuttoning garments such as collars, cuffs, gloves, shirts, dresses, shoes, and boots.

What is a button hook?

A patent issued in 1876 concisely defined a button hook as “…an instrument to facilitate the buttoning of shoes, gloves, and like purposes…”[1] For the purpose of this discussion, the term button hook is used as an inclusive term to describe glove button hooks, shoe button hooks, fasteners, or buttoners used to facilitate the buttoning and unbuttoning of clothing and footwear garments.

Fashion influenced garment styles drove the need and desire for the development of an improved tool to fasten buttons. Button hooks may have been first marketed to button gaiters. Also called spats, short for spatterdasher, gaiters typically were made of cloth and were worn over the shoe, covering the top of the foot, the ankle, and sometimes extending to the mid-calf. Spats were a popular article of clothing worn by men, and, as such, the button hook was predominately a tool used by men until the 1870s.[2]

When women’s fashions began to change in the mid-1870s, use of the button hook by women began to increase. Long gloves, extending a bit beyond the elbow, became an elegant accessory to wear to formal dinners or the opera. Some glove styles were 24 inches in length and had as many as 24 buttons that would begin at the inside wrist and extend up the forearm. The buttons ensured a tight fit and the desired look. Using a glove button hook helped to ease the small buttons through the delicate buttonholes and hastened the time-consuming task of donning this type of glove.

Women’s dresses, shirts, and jackets often had a multitude of buttons, making a button hook a handy tool. A San Francisco newspaper article published in 1885 under the heading “Fashion Notes” advised ladies that: “Buttons, when used at all, are small in size, simple in design, and so closely put together that the dress has frequently to be closed by the aid of a button-hook.” [3]

What really drove the increased use and need for a button hook were changes that took place in the shoe industry in the late 19th century. The shift from hand made shoes to factory made shoes began shortly after the Civil War. Machines were invented, like sewing machines and heeling machines, which allowed use of new or improved materials and sped shoe production.[4] Because sewing machines took the place of hand stitching, rather than soft leather, boot uppers were able to be made from stiff durable leather. Boot tops also were made from heavy canvas fabric. As a result, button hooks became a necessary tool to pull the buttons through the rigid buttonholes. A Philadelphia newspaper article published in 1865 under the heading “Something About Dress. Modern Styles and Innovations…” told readers about the latest styles including the “…ancle-boot [sic]… fastened with buttons, and this led to the invention of the button-hook…”[5]

Button hooks came in a variety of sizes and shapes. Two measurements are important to note and suggest what types of garments would be most appropriate for a particular sized button hook. First, there is the overall length. Length of button hooks ranged from one inch to over twenty inches. Second, there is the diameter of the hook. This size ranged from as little as one-quarter-inch to about three-eighths-inch.

Generally, button hooks intended for use on shoes ranged in length from 7 inches to 12 inches and had a hook diameter of about three-eighths-inch. A long button hook length helped one to reach the shoes, generally from a sitting position, while using the implement. Small button hooks, often termed glove hooks, generally were less than 4 inches in length and typically had a hook diameter of one-quarter-inch. These button hooks were intended for use on gloves, shirt collars, shirt cuffs, and other clothing with small buttons and buttonholes. Overall length was shorter on these hooks to make the tool easier to maneuver. Small button hooks sometimes had a loop at the handle base that allowed the tool to be hung from a chatelaine, necklace, bracelet, or watch chain.

A Trenton newspaper article published in 1912 advised readers that: “Some of the new tailored blouses have very long sleeves, so tight that the lower part of them has to be buttoned with a small buttonhook every time the blouse is put on.”[6]

Materials used in manufacture of button hooks similarly were dependent on its intended use and when the item was produced. Button hooks intended for use on boots typically had a steel shank for strength. Handles were then attached to the shank and provided a way to firmly grasp the tool. Not just functional, handles were often decorative, and could be quite ornamental. Handles were constructed of a variety of materials such as ivory, bone, silver, silver-plated metal, nickel-plated steel, pewter, wood, celluloid, or bakelite. Very small button hooks, intended for use on items with small buttonholes, like gloves, could have been made entirely of one metal such as brass, steel wire, silver, or gold.

The materials used and method of construction of a button hook contributed to its overall cost. Thus, because individuals from all social classes used button hooks, there generally was a button hook available for sale that fit within one’s purchasing ability.

Button hooks were such a commonly used tool that purchasing options were numerous. Button hooks were sold at general merchandise stores, haberdashery shops, jewelry stores, and through popular mail-order catalogs. Silver manufacturers, such as Gorham Manufacturing Company of Rhode Island and R. Wallace & Sons Manufacturing Company of Connecticut showcased button hooks in product catalogs. Advertisements for button hooks were placed in local newspapers, popular magazines, and trade journals. Stores such as Bloomingdales and Macy’s Department Stores in New York and Jordan Marsh & Company in Boston regularly advertised, in newspapers, button hooks for sale either individually or as a component within a set of implements. A newspaper advertisement placed in 1876 in the Springfield Republican by the J.A. Robbins store advertised “Something New. Magic Button Hook! Every Lady Needs One.”[7] While what made the button hook magic was not revealed, it was possible that it simply was a dedicated ready-made tool one could purchase rather than concocting a home-made device of wire.

Newspapers reported the latest trends and had columns that would inform ladies what was new and fashionable. In 1872, the Daily Critic of Washington D.C. reported in its Critic Gossip section the following: “A neat little gilt button-hook, with a tortoise shell or agate handle, is now carried by ladies as a glove fastener, and is much superior to the hair pin. It sometimes has a handle shaped like the haft of a dagger, and is worn in a Russian leather sheath, swung by a couple of gilt chains to the belt.”[8] The reference to a hair pin is insightful and implied that a hair pin was probably used as a buttoning device before small button hooks created specifically for use on gloves were developed.

Button hooks were not only purchased, sometimes they were offered as a free premium with the purchase of another item. The store Earp & Wickersham of Wichita, Kansas advertised in 1895: “With each purchase we will give all our customers a beautiful Silver-Plated Shoe and Glove Buttonhook Set.”[9] Button hooks were also given away as souvenirs to commemorate special events. A New York newspaper article published in 1892 stated: “A solid silver buttonhook in the form of an alpenstock will be the souvenir for the 100th performance of “Miss Helyett” at the Standard Theatre on Friday night.”[10]

While some button hooks offered as free premiums or souvenirs were of a high-quality ornamental style, most giveaways were simple models made of inexpensive materials. Advertising button hooks, often included with a boot purchase, sometimes incorporated in the handle a space to name the store being promoted.

If a button hook was sold as an implement included in a set of tools, it generally was found in either manicure or sewing sets. If included in a sewing set, the button hook would have had a handle that matched other tools in the set, such a stiletto, thread-puller, or crochet hook. The purpose of including a button hook in a sewing kit would be to check the intended button against the buttonhole to be sewn. The button hook was used to verify that the button would easily fit through the created buttonhole.[11]

While the button hook was intended to button and unbutton garments, the implement could also cleverly be used for other purposes. A newspaper article published in 1901 by the Daily Herald of Biloxi gave a compelling testimonial as to the value of keeping a button hook on one’s person at all times. The article entitled “How a Button Hook Once Saved a Man’s Life” went on to quote a Charleston business man who stated: “Next to a hairpin, a button hook is the handiest tool in the world.” The thrust of the article was that the gentleman was trapped in a variety theatre, which had caught fire, and used his button hook to pick a locked door to escape unharmed. “It was the closest call of my life,” he added “ and now you know why I value this button-hook.” [12]

Notes [1] Joseph A. Smith, “Improvement in Shoe and Glove Buttoners,” U.S. Patent No. 172,893 (February 1, 1876). [2] Sue Brandon, Buttonhooks and Shoehorns, (Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom: Shire Publications Ltd, 1995), p. 5-6. [3]San Francisco Bulletin, San Francisco, California, 10 January 1885, Supplement 4, “Fashion Notes”. [4] Nancy E. Rexford, Women’s Shoes in America, 1795-1930, (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000), p. 17. [5] Illustrated New Age, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19 August 1865, p. 4, “Something About Dress. Modern Styles and Innovations – Absurdities and Needed Reforms”. [6] Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, New Jersey, 23 April 1912, p. 11, “Shop Notes”. [7] Springfield Republican, Springfield, Massachusetts, 5 January 1876, p. 8. “Something New. Magic Button Hook! Every Lady Needs One” [advertisement]. [8] Daily Critic, Washington, D.C., 4 November 1872, p. 1, “Critic Gossip”. [9] The Wichita Daily Eagle, Wichita, Kansas, 22 December 1895, p, 16, “Holiday Slippers…” [advertisement]. [10] New York Tribune, New York, New York, 26 January 1892, p. 7. “Notes of the Stage”. [11] Sue Brandon, Buttonhooks and Shoehorns, (Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom: Shire Publications Ltd, 1995), p. 24. [12] Daily Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi, 24 February 1901, p. 6, "A Handy Tool. How a Button Hook Once Saved a Man's Life". For More Information

This blog post is adapted from the below referenced article:

Debora Ellen Blodgett, "A Fascinating Fastener: The Button Hook —An Essential Garment Tool—A Study of Function and Design Through Analysis of United States Patents 1865-1930," The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc. 69:3 (September 2016): 89-101.

Copyright 2021, Debora Ellen Blodgett


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