In the 19th century Birmingham was big in the manufacture of silver and the majority of silver handled buttonhooks found today have Birmingham hallmarks, although you will also find Chester and Sheffield hallmarks. You will be able to date your buttonhook by these hallmarks, but they can be tiny and you might need an eyeglass. Also, many hallmarks have been rubbed away with constant use and some pieces have no hallmark at all although they are genuine silver.
Silver handled buttonhooks would initially have been sold as part of of a dressing table set that would have included other items for good grooming, such as brushes, combs and a mirror. Many of the silver handles were heavily embossed with all sorts of flourishes, reflecting the Victorian taste. From a collector’s point of view the most valuable items are those that include birds, animals, cherubs and other subjects. This type of buttonhook can be expensive but there are also bargains to be found.
Buttonhooks were made in a variety of sizes ranging from just under 2.5cm (1in) to 60cm (24in) long. The various sizes were made for the various garments, the smaller buttonhooks would be for gloves while the larger ones would do up the buttons on your boots. Most buttonhooks have shanks made of steel to make them strong.
Although some of the more ornate buttonhooks can command high prices, many can be found for under £20 due to the fact that many were made and they have no practical use nowadays. Unless you’re looking for rare buttonhooks your best bet is probably antique shops and fairs and auctions.
Very small buttonhooks, sometimes called glove hooks are very popular with collectors. These would make a wonderful display arranged in a picture frame. Despite their popularity silver handled glove hooks can be found for as little as £10 to £15, although very ornate examples would cost more.
When purchasing buttonhooks you should examine them carefully to establish whether the handle has been taken from another item such as a hairbrush or paper knife. You should also check for dents and splits in the handle since silver is delicate and prone to damage. You should also study the hallmark and if you want to become a serious collector you should go equipped with an eyeglass and a pocket guide of English hallmarks.
As silver tarnishes easily you should keep your silver handled buttonhooks behind glass. If they do become tarnished you can easily clean them, either with one of the commercial products on the market or a bicarbonate of soda solution, but remember that too much polishing will eventually damage the silver.
Reading Silver Hallmarks
You should learn to recognize the marks you would expect to find on English sterling silver – they are as follows:
- The lion passant (denoting the silver is sterling ie 925 or 92.5 per cent)
- The maker’s mark that identifies who made the item
- The assay mark showing where the item was assayed; there are different emblems for different assay offices
- The date letter, which indicates the year the piece was made – there are hundreds, that’s why you should have your guide handy
- The duty mark, a sovereign’s head, which you will find only on silver made between 1784 and 1890
Once you understand these marks you’ll be able to tell the difference between sterling silver and EPNS immediately. Although the latter used lots of marks on their products and tried to make them look like hallmarks they won’t fool you if you know your silver hallmarks.