Buttonhooks: Trash or treasures?

Robert Britnell, Special to the Packet & Times



The Victoria love of innovation led to the production of a great variety of tools and gadgets that were designed to make life simpler and to highlight the sophistication and refinement of the owner. One of these tools was the buttonhook. Although mostly unknown now, back in the 1890s it was a common household tool. The earliest British patent was in 1826 and the earliest American patent was in 1869 with several patents registered in both countries.

The buttonhook was generally the size of a fork although it ranged in size from less than an inch to around two feet in length. Most were used for shoe buttons, spats and gaiters, although the smaller types were used for buttons on dresses, sleeves and men's stiff collars. Many of the smaller hooks have a small ring on the handle end so the tool could be suspended on the chatelaine that every lady of the home would wear at her belt.

Although buttonhooks were in existence through the 17th and 18th centuries among the upper classes, they are difficult to date and were usually made of wood. In the mid 19th century buttonhooks were mainly used for a man's stiff leather boots and were generally plain in design. When the feminine high buttoned boot became popular in the 1880's the buttonhooks became more decorative. Previously, a lady's boots were made of soft leather, but a new fashion demanded stiff leather boots that would fit tightly and show off the shape of the ankle. This resulted in an increased demand for buttonhooks that usually can be dated between 1880 and 1915.

This timeframe saw a vast variety of shapes and designs in the buttonhook. There was a buttonhook for every taste, ranging from the handmade twisted wire to those that were made from gold. Folding and retractable buttonhooks were available while some of these tools combined shoehorns and other gadgets such as pen knives. One rare retractable hook was an advertising give away from the Globe newspaper in Toronto that promoted the women's section of the newspaper.

Sterling silver hooks can be found in a number of patterns that are often collected by topic. There are beautiful animal heads, characters from the novels of Charles Dickens, cherubs, Art Nouveau , Oriental , East Indian and floral designs. Often, sterling silver buttonhooks came as part of a matched set that included a manicure knife, scissors, small bottles, a letter opener and shoehorn, all set in a specially fitted case.

Some collectors are interested in examples from every type of buttonhook produced and the range can be astounding. These tools were produced in many early forms of plastic including celluloid and bakelite. There are also buttonhooks made of a variety of natural materials including mother-of-pearl, antler, ivory, jet, bone, wood, tortoiseshell or abalone shell. Metals included brass, enamel on silver, sterling silver and gold. American made silver buttonhooks were often decorated with amethyst, garnet or turquoise. Those of British origin featured handles completely made of cornelian, quartz, agate or onyx. Other hooks included Boer War and First World War militaria, gadgets and novelty items.

Advertising buttonhooks featured those tools with a company's business name and address stamped on the handle as well as the town and country. Numerous Toronto companies participated in this type of advertising as well as businesses from small Canadian towns.

Canadian buttonhooks were produced in quantity and can sometimes be identified by specific Canadian symbols. There was a series of small glove buttonhooks produced with the coats of arms of each province in enamel on silver gilt. Another small sterling glove buttonhook illustrates the coat of arms of Canada along with a beaver under a tree.

Buttonhooks have been avidly collected since the 1970's. The Buttonhook Society of collectors was established in 1979 in Maidstone, Kent, England and has a worldwide membership.

Robert Britnell lives in the Bracebridge-Muskoka area and is prepared to travel reasonable distances to evaluate fine antiques and collectibles and offer guidance in how to best market them. He has a special interest in fine art, estates and downsizing projects. He can be reached at 705-645-6157 or

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