Uniform buttons have both functional and decorative purposes. The art of identifying military buttons is not only logical but interesting as well. The design would pinpoint the service, regiment or state militia to which the bearer belonged and the date it represented. The US Army buttons have been using the eagle crest since around 1808.
The earliest period in which the symbol has been used was in 1797. Changes were made starting with the horizontal positioning in 1852. Then in the midst of World War II, regulations turned the eagle’s head to face the right, connoting honor against a backdrop of turmoil. Marine corps, on the other hand, changed very little from its original design in 1821.
The button’s construction and material is also a good indicator of its age. During war times, Army uniform buttons were made from plastic to save on brass, which was more needed in making arms and weaponry. Navy uniforms worked in a different manner.
Officers and Chief Petty Officers wore gilt brass buttons in WWII. The gray working uniforms had black plastic buttons while green aviation uniform bore the ones with antique enamel finish. Officers, stewards and cooks used an additional white button with an anchor design.
Markings at the Back
Look for the manufacturer’s markings at the back of the buttons. It’s also a good dating method in military buttons but is not conclusive. The Scovill backmark lettering system along with the dots and stars is not always indicative of the period in which the button was used.
While the text didn’t change, Scovill used different embellishments from time to time. Thus you may encounter a ring of dots in a button with an 1850 backmark but none in buttons of a more modern period.
Another helpful factor in identifying military buttons is to check the shank, the attachment that holds the button in its place. If you see a shank soldered at the base, the buttons came from an older period such as the 18th and 19th centuries. Civil War buttons also had that mushrooming effect in the shanks as well.
In 1813, shank came in the form of two pieces crimped together. Then came the two-piece hollow rounded buttons held together by a thin rim invented during 1830s. Shanks that are set into the buttonholes were seen after World War I. And from 1880s to 1920s, innovations such as stamped brass turret and tinned iron back buttons came into being.