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US Uniform Buttons
US Military Uniform Button IdentificationA uniform button's use and age is principally determined by three characteristics, usually considered together. First the "device" (design) identifies the service or state militia that used it, and generally when it was used. Keep in mind that certain devices were used for many decades, so other clues are needed. The buttons construction also offers a guide to age. Finally, the backmark may not only indicate the manufacturer, but if a particular mark or the manufacturer was in existence for a narrow time period, you can further pin down the likely age and use of a button.
Some rules of thumb of age can be made as to how the shank is attached. A one-piece button with a brazed shank (soldered appearance) is a design common in the 18th century, but was also made after. A two-piece button with a brazed shank is typical of 19th century. Two pieces crimped together were first made about 1813. Two-piece hollow rounded buttons held together by a thin rim ("staff" buttons) were invented in the 1830s and used until 1902. Civil War era buttons may show a circular depression at the base around the shank. Shanks inset into holes in the button is typical after World War I. Tinned Iron Back (TIB) and stamped brass turret back buttons are common from the 1880s to 1920s.
Sometimes one of the best indicators of button age is the manufacturers backmarks. Here are examples of the American manufacturer Scovill, and their 19th century backmarks as reported by Albert (1976):
LEVENWORTH, HAYDEN & SCOVILL (also as LH&S) 1811-1827
J.M.L. & W.H. SCOVILL 1827-1840
SCOVILLS : 1827-1840
SCOVILLS & CO. : 1840-1850
SCOVILL MANUFACTURING CO. : 1850-1960
SCOVILL Mg. Co.: 1850-1865
SCOVILL Mg. Co. / WATERBURY CT. 1850-1865
SCOVILL Mf'g Co. : WATERBURY CT. 1850-1865
SCOVILL Mf'g Co. WATERBURY : 1850-1865
SCOVILL Mfg Co. WATERBURY CT. : 1850-1865
Keep in mind that using Scovill backmark lettering (including dots and stars) is not a foolproof method because Scovill often used old backmark dies to make newer buttons. Thus it is possible to have a World War I "Great Seal" button with an 1850 backmark. Another nuance is that while text may remain the same, other embellishments on Scovill buttons change with time. An 1850 backmark may have the name in a groove or one or two rings made of fine lines or tiny dots, whereas a later button may have no ring of dots (like the Great Seal general service button below.
Here are Scovill examples we have observed:
SCOVILL MF'G CO. WATERBURY CT. 1872-1902 (on GI 98, ring of large dots)
SCOVILL MF'G CO. * WATERBURY *: 1902-est. 1918
(on Great Seal coat buttons with ring of large dots)
Timeline of Key US Army General Infantry Button DevicesBased upon Albert (1976)
General Service 1852-1902: (enlisted men) Two-piece buttons with spread eagle and lined shield
1852-1875: shield not raised, coat size 19-20 mm typ
1875-1902: shield conspicuously raised, coat is 21 mm
General Service 1902-present: (enlisted men and officers) Great Seal of the US. One and two-piece buttons.
Shields with Letters
Shield with I : Infantry. Enlisted men, 1821-1854, officers 1821-1902.
Shield with A : Artillery. Enlisted men, 1821-1854, officers 1821-1902.
Shield with R : Riflemen. Enlisted men, 1821-1857, officers 1821-1902.
Shield with C : Calvary, 1855-1902 (officers only).
Shield with D : Dragoons (a light cavalry), 1836-1854 for enlisted men, officers 1836-1902.