A crucial tool that collectors, researchers, and enthusiasts can use to help date garments is hardware. Specifically, in this case, adjustment buckles. These small, sometimes intricate pieces of brass, iron, or tin-plated steel can be an invaluable resource (when used in conjunction with other clues) to deduce a period of manufacture for mid-19th century men’s textiles.
Prior to 1840, generally speaking, adjustments for men’s trousers and waistcoats relied on lacing. The lacing on trousers is evident throughout the 18th century, and buckles began appearing on men’s pants at the beginning of the 19th century. A series of handworked eyelets at the rear of the trousers were laced with twilled tape to allow the trousers to be cinched or let out a few inches in each direction. In the first quarter of the 19th century, most waistcoats were adjusted in the rear by either a series of similarly laced eyelets or cloth ties. Waistcoat eyelets were typically worked by hand, but some do feature machine made metal grommets. Another rare variation of rear adjustment for waistcoats, which showed up around the middle part of the 1840s, is shirred elastic; a material quite similar to several elastic webbings produced today. None of the above is to say that buckles were not being utilized during earlier periods, but they were less common than lacing.
In a relatively brief period in the early 1840s, small buckles began to replace lacing. The rapid transition created an explosion of new buckle designs, patents, and manufacturing processes. A book could be written on the subject, as the business of buckles in the period was massive and complex, but we have worked to distill the subject and provide an overview of the most common buckles found on our garments and the time periods in which they were most often installed. By understanding these common buckles and their popularity, we can arrive at reasonable timeframes for garment manufacture.
Some of the earliest garments in our collection feature unadorned machine-made buckles often stamped from wire stock (1A).
This style of buckle was quickly replaced with a more practical version (1B) sometime in the mid 1840’s.These buckles feature a small looped opening on the lower pronged portion, which made fastening them to the adjustment tab easier and prevented the tearing of the tab when applying tension. These buckles would reach the height of their popularity in the first few years of the 1850’s and nearly vanish from the clothing record by 1856.
In the waning years of the 1840’s, the adjustment buckle would undergo a significant change. The loop used to secure the buckle to the garment would be moved from the interior of the buckle to the bottom. This design change not only reduced tension on the cloth in a significant way, but also created a neater finished product, as the opposite adjustment tab could be easily pushed underneath the buckle (1C).
While a direct patent association remains elusive, some researchers credit prominent buckle innovator Sheldon S. Hartshorn with the design. However, this style buckle appears to have been designed as part of a patent issued July 3rd 1849, that was issued to a J. Abernethy (1C).
Hartshorn would, however, go on to be granted a handful of other patents for adjustable buckles throughout the first half of the 1850s. The most popular of which was his 1854 patent (1D). This particular buckle appears with frequency up until about 1860.
One of the most important buckles to appear during this period, is the famous Paris patent buckle (1E). Its origins are somewhat murky, but many in the collector’s world believe the buckle is the result of a French patent granted in 1849. We have found no record of this patent, nor a relevant United States patent to support this claim.
Buckles both in our collection and elsewhere bear stamped dates (1E) which appear to align with manufacturing years. This buckle can be one of the most difficult buckles to use when dating garments, as it remained popular into the early 20th century. Early versions of this buckle were often ornate and decorative, feature the aforementioned year stamps, and are of a consistent, identifiable style and manufacture.
The Paris patent buckle continued to be one of the most common buckles found on garments between 1855 and 1865. In the second half of The Merchant Tailor Museum's focus, we can observe the simplification of the Paris patent buckle's styling. By the last half of the 1850’s, ornamental versions of the buckle were replaced by simpler, unadorned versions (2A).
The “PARIS” marking also begins to show up in this period. Another marking, “SOLIDE” that shows up commonly on later iterations of this buckle, was rare during this period. There is, however, a well-documented buckle that falls into the ‘55-’65 timeframe, which bears the “SOLIDE” mark; it is a single buckle that was recovered from the wreckage of the Confederate submarine Hunley, which sank in February of 1864.
One of the most manufactured buckles of the mid-19th century was the brainchild of Sheldon S. Hartshorn. On July 10th, 1855 Hartshorn was granted the patent for a formed wire buckle (2B).
The patent focused more on the manufacturing process and less on the particular stylings of the buckle itself. During the early years of production, the patent information would be molded, in various arrangements, onto the buckle. Hartshorn’s ‘55 buckle gained popularity in the last half of 1855 and a myriad of variations would arise in the following years (2C).
Most variations of them were only manufactured for short periods, mostly between 1856 and 1864. Garments which feature his ‘55 variations along with his other 1850’s and 1860’s patented buckles can, with a high degree of certainty, be dated to pre-1865. The more common wire formed buckle would remain in popularity far into the 20th century, so, much like the Paris patent buckle, one must be critical when using this style of buckle to make conclusions about age.
Image 2C showcases buckles of this style known to have been produced pre-1865. One of the easiest ways to tell if a ‘55 patent buckle was produced post-Civil War is the presence of square corners (2D), a feature that resulted from changes in the manufacturing process in the early 1870s.
During the last half of the 1850’s and the first few years of the 1860’s, dozens of other buckles emerged. One example is the 1856 E. Parker patent (2E), which would spawn a plethora of trouser and waistcoat buckles within just a few years of its issue. Hartshorn would go on to patent one other popular buckle in winter of 1855 (2F) but it would lose favor before it ever really caught on.
The 1855 to 1865 period was dominated by the Paris patent buckle and the Hartshorn ‘55 patent buckle, though we certainly observe the use of older buckles during this era. Taking into consideration other aspects of a garment such as button styles (and potential patents surrounding their manufacture), the cut and style of the garment, how the garment is constructed (i.e. hand-sewn or machine-sewn), we can determine a relative date of production.
As with all resources used within and outside of our institution, one should always consider a myriad of elements when determining the age of a garment. The buckle alone will seldom give the examiner all the information they need to accurately date a piece, however understanding the basics of buckles can offer important clues to support a complex process of elimination. We here at The Merchant Tailor Museum utilize our buckle collection, and the years of research that accompanies it, as one tool in an arsenal to help us paint the clearest picture possible about when our garments might have been produced. We hope that this simple primer can lay the groundwork for your own in-depth buckle study, and help you more easily identify likely dates of manufacture for garments that you encounter in your research.