As an amateur metal detectorist, one of the greatest things I can find with my metal detector is antique buttons. Buttons are a fascinating piece of history and have changed dramatically throughout the centuries.
Did you know buttons were first used in the Indus Valley around 2000 BCE? For over 4,000 years, buttons have been part of human society. That is truly fascinating!
As times changed, so did the material buttons were made from. During the 1800s, gilded buttons were commonly used as a sign of importance or wealth. Some of these gilded buttons were double gilt buttons. What does that mean, you may be asking? Stick with me and you will learn all about double gilt buttons!
What Does Gilt Mean?
Gilt refers to covering an item with a thin layer of gold, or a material like gold. It can also mean having a golden color. The word gilt can be traced to the 14th century, where it was used to describe items like buttons, bowls, or other metal works that were covered in thin layers of gold or painted with gold leaf. (Source)
During the early 1800s, Americans learned the secret of gilding from the British. They then began to make gilt buttons. Approximately five gold grains per gross of buttons were added to a mixture of mercury. This mixture was then brushed onto brass buttons, which were then baked in a furnace. Gilt buttons were all the rage of the 19th century Golden Age. (Source)
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The gilding process became so well known in fact, that manufacturers took to British parliament to enact laws to keep less ethical manufacturers from using too little gold to gild buttons.
The approved amount was 1/96th of an ounce of gold per 1 inch button. This controversy led to manufacturers stamping the backs of their buttons with identification marks, so buyers knew they were getting a quality product. (Source)
What is a Double Gilt Button?
Double gilt simply means an item is covered with a double coating of gold. So, twice the legal limit of gold required of a gilded button was applied to double gilt buttons. Items that are commonly found with double gilt coatings are cups, bowls, goblets, buttons, and copper and silver threads. (Source)
A double gilt button, therefore, is a button with a double coating of gold or gold leaf applied over the original manufacture material. Many buttons were made with copper alloy or brass, due to their durability, then covered with gold for a more elegant and expensive look.
Double gilt buttons were an indication of rank, as for the military, or wealth, as for civilians. These buttons were more expensive than traditional metal buttons but gave an impressive panache to the coats they were applied to.
Clues for Identifying a Double Gilt Button
One of the best ways to identify an old button is by looking at the shank. The shank is where the button would attach to a garment. Double gilt buttons have a brass eye shank, typically without feet, soldered to the back of the button.
This style of shank was common from the 1830s forward. If your button has a brass eye shank with feet, it may be too early to be a double gilt button as eye shanks with soldered feet typically date from 1812 to 1820. (Source)
Metal Detecting Tip: Another tip for identifying buttons is to look for a backmark. A backmark is how manufacturers branded their metal buttons beginning in the latter half of the 18th century.
As mentioned above, this was mainly due to ensure buyers were purchasing quality buttons. Many button makers were cutting the amount of gold used to gild items drastically, and more upstanding manufacturers wanted to ensure their products were separated from these cheaper knockoffs.
You can look for marks on the back of the button and do a quick online search, or search through a button book to see if you can find the manufacturer.
Some gilt buttons also had quality marks stamped into the backs, much like a makers backmark. Typical quality marks for gilded buttons were Extra Rich, Rich Gold Color (or Rich Gold Color), Treble Gilt, Best Orang Gilt, or any other combination of these words. (Source)
You can also take a cotton swab with distilled water and gently clean the button. This will allow you to see the shine given by the gilding process. This will show you whether your button is gilded or not. Gold does not tarnish, so it should retain its original brilliance, unless it has been damaged and the gilded coated has come off.
You can also use a bit of aluminum jelly on the parts you suspect are gilt. Do not expose the copper to the jelly if possible. Do not clean with anything harsher than distilled water in case the gold coating has come off. Harsher chemical cleaners and stiff bristle brushes can damage the buttons irreparably.
How Old Are Double Gilt Buttons?
Double gilt buttons were commonly produced from the early 1800s through the 1850s. This era, referred to as the Golden Age of buttons, where gilded brass buttons were all the rage, lasted until around 1850 when milk glass buttons took over in traditional menswear. (Source)
What Do Civil War Double Gilt Buttons Look Like?
Most Civil War buttons were made of brass and pewter, but some were gilt or double gilt, giving them that special shine. These buttons will have intricate designs on them, with the traditional brass eye shank soldered to the back.
Some Union Civil War double gilt buttons feature an eagle and shield emblem. Others, created especially for the Confederate States Navy, feature an anchor and rope design, with the letters CSN underneath. (Source)
What is a Treble Gilt Button?
The gilding process for buttons had three possible stages: gilt, double gilt, and treble gilt. Gilt meant one coating of the legal limit of gold was applied to the button. Double gilt meant two coatings of the legal gold limit was applied to the buttons. Therefore, treble gilt meant three times the legal limit of gold was applied to the button.
Treble gilt buttons often have the words TREBLE GILT stamped into the back of the button. They may also contain some combination of the previously mentioned quality identification words. One button I have seen is stamped EXTRA RICH TREBLE GILT. (Source)
Are Double Gilt Buttons Worth Anything?
Double gilt buttons are typically not hugely expensive. The gold on them is such a minute amount, it does not add a whole lot of value. However, the right button to the right collector could be worth much more. Some double gilt buttons
I found while scanning the internet range from approximately $20 to $40. Double gilt buttons are often worth more historically than monetarily. These buttons can tell little stories about their time periods.
|Example Found and Description
|Example 1 – 1820s-1830 Double Gilt No.2
|Example 2 – 1800-1820s Double Gilt British Crown
|Example 3 – 1800-1820s Double ESS London
|Example 4 – Antique Set Double Gilt
That being said, a D Coat double gilt Button, manufactured during the Civil War years of 1861 to 1865, in pristine condition, was listed on eBay for nearly $800! The right button in the right condition to the right collector can fetch quite a bit of money.
Always check for the maker’s backmark before attempting to sell a double gilt button considering some manufacturers were less than honest about the amount of gold in their gilding processes.
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Gilded buttons are a fantastic find, whether you are metal detecting, antique store hopping, or digging through a pile of old boxes in the attic. Buttons have been used for over 4,000 years, so they are certainly an important piece of human history.
During the 1800s, some buttons were used to denote wealth and rank. These gilded buttons added style and substance to the wearer’s garments, making them really stand out.
Double gilt buttons are simply double coated in a thin gold layer. These can be identified through the gold coating, the shank eye on the back, and the makers mark stamp. Many of these buttons were used on military uniforms, and some Civil War double gilt buttons are still out there waiting to be found. These stunning buttons are a great piece of history.
For more help identifying antique buttons, click here: https://metaldetectingtips.com/old-flat-button-identification-metal-detectorists-guide/
- Gilt Definition: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gilt#h1
- Double Gilt Definition: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/traded-goods-dictionary/1550-1820/dolberline-double-gilt#h2-0021
- Button Gilding, Button Quality & Treble Gilt: https://pdf4pro.com/cdn/the-buttonmonger-b19d9.pdf
- American Usage of Gilding: https://georgetowner.com/articles/2019/06/13/antiques-addict-buttoned-down-with-antique-buttons/#:~:text=In%201810%2C%20after%20purloining%20the,then%20cooked%20in%20a%20furnace.
- Age of Gilded Buttons: https://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1042&context=utk_chanhonoproj
- Button Shank Identification Chart: https://www.detecting.us/dating-and-identification-of-metal-detecting-finds/dating-buttons-by-shank-style-and-material/
- Confederate States Navy Buttons: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/966hpr-621a00a8ed0d497/