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Looking at the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, http://www.finds.org.uk, I was struck by the distribution of the numbers of pewter and copper alloy medieval buttons. There’s about 400 that are copper alloy (I say about, because some non-buttons or non-medieval ones slip into the sorted lot) versus about 14 pewter and 18 white metal or tin.
So from this you might think that in the medieval period copper alloy ones were 12.5 times more popular than pewter or tin ones. I can think of a reason or two why they would be more popular – they would, if the correct alloy, not discolour too easily and I imagine this would actually be important – you don’t want dark streaks of lead on your nice clothing. Strength is probably less of an issue, since buttons are held on by thread which would surely break before the button loop even if it was made from lead.

Here’s a copper alloy one, of typical size and shape:
A copper alloy button medievalbutton
From the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Meanwhile, at re-enactment events, pewter buttons are far more common than copper alloy ones, maybe 12 times more popular or more. In fact I can’t think of when I last saw someone wearing some.
The reasons for this are to do with the relative cheapness and ease of manufacture of pewter objects compared to copper alloy ones, and of course modern ones are mostly tin and don’t corrode as much as medieval ones would. Of course in medieval times it was as easy to make pewter ones as now; pewter or tin is much more easily cast, into easily carved stone moulds (Not that I’ve heard of any button moulds being found) than bronze. So in re-enactment terms, people are going with what is cheaply and easily available, rather than what is accurate. I’m a bit guilty of that myself, with 2 lots of pewter buttons on clothing. I need to make some bronze ones, but the lost wax attempts didn’t work well at all because I messed up the casting.

Then if we turn to some of the more readily available books of medieval finds, such as the Museum of London dress accessories 1150-1450, we find 8 pewter and 12 copper alloy. Also a pewter one that is hollow and 7 copper alloy which are made of sheeting or other complex method. In the Salisbury and South Wiltshire museum mesdieval catalogue, there’s 5 pewter buttons listed (although I suspect one or two aren’t buttons) and no copper alloy. One copper alloy button is mentioned from the Deansway, Worcester excavations. And for comparison the museum of London book of the 1450-1700 excavations from Southwark lists similar numbers of 16 and 17th century buttons made of copper alloy and pewter as their earlier book. So a predominance of copper alloy, but not by very much.

Why this massive difference in dated quality excavated finds from towns and generally random countryside detector finds?
Of course a discrepancy between metal detector finds and excavation finds is to be expected, because of the sampling issues. Basically excavations usually get to sample only part of the medieval/ Tudor area and period, so get only a slice of life. It’s a bit like someone is digging and finds the remains of a shoe,a Nike trainer, which indicates that people in the late 20th century wore such shoes. Nearby, they also find a pair of brogues. So obviously men in the late 20th century wore brogues or trainers? But would you find a few hundred pairs of trainers to one of brogues, well probably not, because many wouldn’t survive. But trying to draw any conclusions from that as to what was the most common would be silly. On the other hand once you have hundreds or thousands of examples such conclusions can be drawn using statistical methods, but that’s a more complex post requiring more work so don’t hold your breath waiting for one.

Although thinking about it more, the metal detector finds should give a more representative sample, because of the hundreds of examples, and the more samples the better. Once you have enough you can start doing statistical analysis, especially if you assume that the deposition is effectively random, and importantly, that there’s no difference in deposition rate between pewter and copper alloy buttons. And why would there be? They’d be attached the same way, and they would fall off into long grass or mud the same way and not be found in the same way. So theoretically the differences in aggregate number of finds is probably more representative of how common they were in everyday life.

Ultimately though, with buttons we can’t even say how many of them were produced and how popular they were over 200 years, so we can’t really estimate how frequently they should be found. Plus a lot of metal objects were recycled in the centuries afterwards which reduces the population of surviving objects and probably skews their distribution.
I suppose it might be possible to compare them to other types of finds, e.g. there’s 16,896 medieval buckles, showing just how more common they were than the butttons, a ratio of 39:1, which isn’t as high as I would have thought, but again, we have so little evidence to base any estimates on.

Another question is the manufacturing method. Pewter buttons were definitely made in 3 part moulds, and I’m working on a new button mould myself right now. But the copper alloy ones don’t have such a clear cut manufacturing method, so I need to do some more experimenting. I suspect they might also have been made in stone moulds or really well made clay, loam and such moulds. We’ll have to see what works.