Buttons did not originate as clothes fasteners. They were decorative, jewelry like disks sewn on men’s and women’s clothing. And for almost 3,500 years, buttons remained purely ornamental; pins and belts were viewed as sufficient to secure garments.
The earliest decorative buttons date from about 2,000 B.C. and were unearthed at archaeological digs in the Indus Valley. They are seashells, of various mollusks, carved into circular and triangular shapes, and pierced with two holes for sewing them to a garment.
The early Greeks and Romans used shell buttons to decorate tunics, togas, and mantles, and they even attached wooden buttons to pins that fastened to clothing as a broach. Elaborately carved ivory and bone buttons, many leafed with gold and studded with jewels, were retrieved from European ruins. But nowhere, in illustration, text, or garment fragment, is there the slightest indication that an ancient tailor conceived the idea of opposing a button with a buttonhole.
When did the noun “button” become a verb? Surprisingly, not until the thirteenth century.
From Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati
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