Identify Old Belt Buckles

How to Identify and Date Belt Buckles (A Valuable Find)

A buckle is an item used for fastening two straps together, such as a belt. The buckle itself may be attached directly to the strap or it may have a plate attaching it to the strap. The word buckle comes from the Latin word bucca, meaning cheek. This is likely due to the use of buckles on chinstraps of helmets in the early Roman period.

Belt buckles were first used by the semi-nomadic Xiongnu Chinese people in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. They wore belted tunics with highly decorative buckles. Roman and Greek metalsmiths soon began forging belt buckles for their warriors.

In the United States, Civil War belt buckles are a common find and can be worth quite a bit if they are genuine.

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What Are the Different Types of Buckles?

Buckle design and form vary from different historic periods. Early Roman buckles, from the first to third centuries CE, were exclusively used for military applications. Lightweight buckles were used primarily to fasten armor while heavier cast buckles were used to fasten belts. From the third century onward, belt buckles were very popular in the Roman world, especially those with zoomorphic decorations.

Early Anglo-Saxon buckles were small oval or D-shaped frames with no distinction between the loop and bar. The tip of the pin typically hangs slightly over the edge of the frame. This helps identify this type of buckle. Hinged buckle plates of Anglo-Saxon origin are more difficult to identify because of how they were cast. Triangular buckle plates also became popular in more prestigious Anglo-Saxon households, typically in the 6th and 7th centuries.

The Middle Ages became more and more common and more recognizable during the middle ages. Anglo-Saxons along with Scandinavians used belt buckles with distinctive styles. Ringerike-style buckles were typically decorated as a pair of animals with their noses touching the bar. Urnes-style buckles are another Scandinavian-style buckle with ornamentation that is not symmetrical.

Single-loop D-shaped or oval buckle frames with offset bars are by far the most common form of buckle. These began in the 13th century, and rectangular, trapezoidal, and long D-shaped form buckles came about in the 14th century. Composite buckles were popular during the 14th and 15th century and refers to the plate material. Composite means layers sandwiched together on the frame. The 14th century also saw large circular buckle frames come into style.

During the late 17th century, buckles rose in popularity and commonality. This is also the period when the first shoe buckles were made. 19th and 20th-century copper alloy horse harness buckles are commonly found and have recessed bars to accommodate the thick straps. This makes this buckle type easier to identify. (Source)

US Civil War Buckle
US Civil War Buckle

American Civil War soldiers wore metal belt buckle plates that were larger than older buckles and more closely resemble modern bar and pin buckles. The front was typically adorned with artwork or abbreviations to denote the soldiers’ state of origin or army division.

Slide belt buckles became popular with businessmen in the early 1900s. Slide, also called compression, buckles featured a latch that folded over the belt to hold it in place using friction. (Source)

Signs That You Found an Old Belt Buckle

One of the best ways to identify an old buckle is to check the material it is made from. Belt buckles were made historically from a variety of metals including solid brass, pewter, natural materials like bone or horn, wood, precious metals, and metal composites. Some metals will darken or change colors over time due to oxidation. Do not clean these as the naturally aged color is desirable for collectors. Plus, you may damage the item if you clean it. (Source)

Most vintage belt buckles will be made of brass, silver, or gold. Testing the material, the buckle is made from is a great way to see if you have found an old buckle. You can also take the buckle to an antique dealer or vendor, or a buckle expert, to have it looked at. These experts can help you identify the age and material your buckle is made from. (Source)

Western belt buckles gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, although some early examples date to the 1920s. Trophy buckles began to catch on a prize for rodeo events in the 1940s and 1950s and were common by the 1960s. These early western buckles often had swivel bars on the back. Buckles from pre 1960 had a solid bar on the back. The swivel became more common in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Source)

You can also do a little research online to see how old your buckle might be. Some websites, like Chris Marhsall’s Buckles Through the Ages are great tools to find information about buckles from Roman ages through more current buckles. This website uses information and drawings to show different belt buckle types and when they were used throughout history.

How Are Buckles Marked?

Many belt buckles with commercial origins will have markings on the back to show the manufacturer. Artisan, or handmade buckles, will sometimes have signatures and dates on them, but they can be difficult to read. These handmade buckles were typically cast in wax or sandcasting, so the details of a signature or date can be illegible or simply worn away with time. (Source)

Marking on back of belt buckle
Marking on back of belt buckle

Some modern belt buckles, specifically 1970s buckles, had all types of counterfeit markings on them. In fact, the modern belt buckle’s popularity can be attributed to a fraud scheme during the 1970s involving counterfeit antique belt buckles. These were stamped with all sorts of manufacturers’ logos, including Tiffany and Company, which turned out to be fake. Nevertheless, collectors flocked to flea markets and pawn shops desperate to buy these marked buckles. (Source)

What Are the Different Parts of a Buckle?

Buckles have various parts that can help in the identification process. The main parts of a buckle are the frame, the pin, the plate, and the rivets. The frame can be a single or double loop. The loop of a buckle is the space enclosed within the buckle frame. This is the portion of the buckle that the strap would go through to fasten it.

Parts of a Belt Buckle
Parts of a Belt Buckle

The bar is a term used to denote the area of the buckle frame, typically straight, where the strap is attached, and the pin is hinged. The frame is further divided into the top edge, bottom edge, and outside edge. Single loop belt buckles can be oval, D-shaped, semi-circular, rectangular, trapezoidal, or circular. Double loop frames are divided by a center bar. The loops can be identical or asymmetrical in shape.

The pin of a belt buckle is the portion sometimes called a tongue, that fastens into a hole to make the belt strap fit the wearer. The portions of a pin are the loop, shaft, and tip. The loop is where the pin fastens to the buckle. The shaft is the portion between the loop and the tip. The tip is where the pin will enter the strap to allow the size of the belt to be adjusted. Loops scan be open or closed depending on the buckle type.

The plate of a buckle is the term used for all components that attach the strap to the buckle. Buckle plates can be made in a single piece with the frame or attached by a hinge. Many plates have rivet holes where the buckle would attach to the strap. Some plates do not have a space for a pin, especially double loop frame buckles. The plate can be hinged on the outside edge of one loop and the pin can be on the central bar. These can be hard to identify.

Are Old Buckles Valuable?

Some buckles can be worth quite a bit. For example, Civil War Southern Army buckles are rare, and as such, more valuable. These can sell for up to $35,000! Even more common Civil War buckles can be worth at least $300 each. (Source)

Buckle Description and LinkHow Much It’s Worth $$
Civil War Belt Buckle (Ebay)$51.00
CIVIL WAR INFANTRY BELT BUCKLE (Ebay)$50.00
CIVIL WAR SQUARE MILITIA BUCKLE (Ebay)$54.00
Civil War Confederate States CS Officer Belt Buckle (Ebay)$99.00

A Union Army “US” oval buckle in good condition can range from $300 to $500. The Confederate Army 11-star two-piece officer’s sword buckle is the biggest value on a buckle I have seen. This buckle is valued at $35,000! (Source)

Buckles made by famous artists or manufacturers can also be worth quite a bit of money. Vintage items are back in popularity, and some designer buckles out there can be worth a lot. For example, a gold buckle designed by jeweler David Yurman is worth over $600.

Vintage western belt buckles can also fetch a pretty penny. Pre-World War II, there were very few championship buckles awarded, be they for rodeo or another event. Vintage rodeo trophy belt buckles can sell for anywhere from $100 to $250. Vintage buckles featuring Native American imagery can also be worth anywhere from $40 to $150. (Source)

Buckling Up

Belt buckles have a long and storied history. Some finds can be worth quite a bit of money. Do some research on your found buckles. They may be worth more than you think! Check for a manufacturer’s stamp or signature. Check the manufacturing material of the buckle. Check the shape and form of your buckles. These are all great ways to determine a belt buckle’s age.

There are several books written to help identify old belt buckles. One such book is called Collecting Men’s Belt Buckles. This is a value guide featuring over 450 photos of belt buckles. This is a great way to determine what type of belt buckle you have. The pictures make all the difference in correctly identifying your finds. You can also check cataloging manuals, such as the DAACS Cataloging Manual: Buckles by Kate Grillo, Jennifer Aultman and Nick Bon-Harper. This guide gives information on the frame, pins, and hooks, decorative techniques, and figures of different types of buckles to help you more easily identify your buckle.

Take the buckle to a professional for help in identifying the age and material of the buckle. Do not attempt to clean a belt buckle you have found yourself. This can damage the natural oxidation and patina and diminish the value. Leaving the natural oxidation will ensure you get top dollar for any antique belt buckles you plan to sell.

If you plan to keep your buckle, you may decide you want to clean them. Do some research on the best way to clean the material your buckle is made from. Typically, distilled water and a microfiber cloth or soft-bristled brush are all you need to clean a buckle without damaging it.


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