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Story of the Leo Popper & Sons
Glass Button Business — 1870 – 1917

Written by Elsie F. Kelly in 1956

    Many factories were at work making glass buttons and novelties, such as settings for rings, pin heads, cuff links, earrings, stick pins, etc. in New York City in the latter half of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th. Queen Victoria and her penchant for "Jet", which was too costly for the ordinary person as well as being very fragile, gave the impetus to the glass workers to copy the buttons and ornaments in glass. The so-called "Jet Buttons" became very popular and plentiful. Button collectors know today that thousands of black glass buttons were made both here and in Europe. Colored glass buttons were not neglected in the output. Our old charm strings, with their lovely bright colored glass buttons that are the pride and joy of most of our collectors today, are proof.

    The firm of Leo Popper & Sons was one that made buttons and ornaments from both black and colored glass. They also imported many buttons, mostly from France and Austria. Today and for the last 75 years stained glass and mosaics have been their main business. They do not make glass windows or ornamental objects, but make and furnish the glass for those who do that work. Their glass is in such well-known edifices as The Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Washington Cathedral. They also make small glass disks and pieces for utilitarian and decorative purposes as used on highways, telephones, elevators and numerous other things.

    They sell glass to small firms and glass workers for paperweights, paperweight buttons, novelties and ornaments; in fact, they have never stopped that part of the business. They made glass for L. C. Tiffany and others who worked in iridescent glass in that period. We have, I am sure, heard of "Queen Lil" of the Hawaiian Islands. Her popularity was in the 1890's. Poppers sponsored a spun glass dress for her which is now in the Museum of Honolulu.

    Edwin L. Popper (son of Emil L. who is 87 years old and not too active in the business today) says they never expected anyone to be interested in buttons. Since written records were not kept of the button business, Mr. Edwin L. spent quite a bit of time in reminiscence. He was aided by Andy Clarke, the only person who was with the firm when they were engaged in making buttons. "Andy" has been with the firm 54 years and remembers quite a few things that were done in the button and ornament departments. So we have some idea of the workings and products of the firm in former years.

    The following is an excerpt from a recent letter from Mr. Edwin that explains much about the beginning and ending of button making by Leo Popper & Sons:

    "Wish we had all the information you need on our former activities with buttons. My father knows a great deal about it, but is getting shaky on dates and the like. All I know is the background of the larger glass business as told to me years ago by father and some uncles. Father's father, Leo Popper, came to the United States in the early 1840's as a boy. He came from the Bohemian part of Austria. His father was a doctor. He undoubtedly had some feelings for small glass articles since he was born in a small town no far from Goblantz, which was a world center for this work.

    "In New York he was apprenticed to a marble worker, making those 1840 marble mantlepieces, etc., until gold was found at Sutter's Mill, California, in 1849, when he skipped off via ship around Cape Horn (I think it took 90 days) and landed in California. He did some placer mining, found some gold, and with the proceeds set up a small store for miners at Rattlesnake Bar. There are a flock of lively stories about him in this period. He had a Chinaman helping him at the store, and they played chess after supper. There was considerable "rough house", miners with "likker" in them shot up the store once in a while, then came back and paid him for the damage with a bag of gold. Grandpa got together with a gang to put down horse thieving and the like, in a vigilante group.

    "Around 1861 he returned east, got married, and tried various businesses from 1861-1880. Was in the hoopskirt manufacturing business, and patented a new type in the 1860's. Was in the liquor business with a cousin. In 1868 he and eight or nine others put in money and started a glass factory in Brooklyn. They went out of business in 1875 or so as a result of European competition. He was also in the button business in the middle of the 1870's. In 1880 that business was turned into a general glass business—mirrors, window glass, small specialties, stained glass, colored glass, etc. A couple of years later, his son Caleb joined the business and did considerable traveling and buying in Europe, from roughly 1882-1884. The manufacture of buttons continued thru this period, and buttons and markings of buttons were brought in from abroad as well. In 1889 my father entered the business, and about this time his older brother also joined it. Caleb died in the mid 1890's, and from that time until 1910, when Leo Popper, my grandfather, died Leo ran the business in partnership with sons Emil L. and Edwin S. Edwin S. died in 1948, and since then Emil L. has run the business as a proprietorship.

    "As far as I can gather, the buttons were manufactured from the very start of the business. Some were imported after the early 1880's, and both functions were carried out until approximately 1917. At one time in this period there was a salesman and office in Chicago. At another time there was a larger office in Providence, Rhode Island. The buttons were sold to wholesalers, manufacturers of clothing, and were carded for sales to department stores, as well. In those days the manufacturer of smaller glass items was comparatively unspecialized. We made buttons, cuff links, stick pins, ordinary pins, imitation glass jewels, signal jewels and all the rest of it. So did a number of other manufacturers. Other older firms at that time were Bailey, Green & Elger, Lorsch, Trifari-Fischel, G. Hirsch and others, and there was the general buying and selling between these firms.

    "I do not know how large our output was. We had, prior to 1919, about twenty people doing pressing and wire work. Some made buttons, others lenses, imitation jewels, etc. Just as a guess would figure that a minimum of 20-25,000 buttons were turned out per week. Not a large quantity, considering that it was a six-day week, 10-12 hours per day. But this is just a guess, we may have doubled this quantity."

*    *    *

    Mrs. Gertrude Patterson, of Malaga, New Jersey, our beloved "Pat", contacted the Popper firm quite a few years ago. She had been told it was of no use to write them and ask that some of their nice glass buttons they still had in stock be sent to her. But she persisted and with the charming manner she possesses, she succeeded, and through the years has had many orders from them, and has kept up a lively correspondence with them. Mr. Emil Popper told me "If we cannot think of her name, we just say Mrs. Buttons, and all know about whom we are talking". Many of the lovely buttons and ornaments I have came from her.

    I had the privilege in the last few months of spending the greater part of two days at their place of business. There are very few buttons left there now. Many of the original novelties and ornaments are still in the old brittle boxes. One can pick up some of the old cards with buttons on them that were sold to stores with the heading "Neuvetaute" trade mark of the Popper firm, interpreted by them "Novelty".

    It was quite a nostalgic feeling one had, looking around the very large room where so many years ago many hands worked getting orders ready for delivery to many parts of the country for the adornment of men and women.

    After you have examined a button made by the Poppers, you can easily pick them out. Almost every collection of glass buttons will have some in it. The edge on the back is beveled, and the shank, a small shank plate with two prongs that are about ¼" apart and embedded in the glass. They also made self shanks, many of the "key" shanks, and some swirl backs. I did not find any sew thru's. The biggest output seemed to be black glass, with many mourning and semi-mourning ones. Glass in many beautiful colors and combinations of color, stripes, marbled, and mottled markings were seen. Some also have silver or gold trim.

    One of their specialties was called "Spangled Glass", a mixture of colors. One particular mixture has a silver-like metal mixed in the glass to make it stronger, and was given the name "Silvered Glass". They also made Pearlized (imitation pearl) from ground fish scales, mixed with a solution Mr. Emil devised, in the early 1890's. They made them into buttons, earrings, cuff links, studs, pins for corsages and hat pins.

    Buttons and ornamental pieces were made with hand presses, which were made of iron and very heavy. Poppers never used machines for making buttons or ornaments.

    The molds were made in stock designs, that is why so many firms made buttons with the same designs on them. If a button firm wanted a special mold, a drawing was sent to the firm that made molds, to be executed for them. Molds were always expensive and still are far from cheap, and a firm making many buttons had to have a large number of molds.

    I own one of the hand presses and the front and back of a mold, purchased from Poppers, also quite a few findings such as pieces of cane, unfinished buttons, disks for jewelry, hat pins, cuff links, eyes for large carnival dolls, some samples of their glass, iridescent and colors, a hunk of "Aventurine glass" made in Italy today as it was many years ago and still quite expensive. It is called "Goldstone" by most people, and is seen in many of our buttons today—especially the paperweight type.

    Many thanks are due the Leo Popper & Sons for their help, which was freely given, in making it possible to give you a first hand account of some of the history and workings of a firm turning out glass buttons before the era of machinery.


    Many inquiries have been received about Popper Buttons—especially if they have shanks other than "key shank". There is hardly a club meeting when I am not asked the question.

    A number of years ago Mrs. Kelly sent me a manuscript—and she furnished much of the same to the Pennsylvania Button Society. This was published in their Bulletin and to save time I have used their copy.

    Shortly after she and Mr. Kelly had spent many hours at the Popper factory, it was my good fortune to be a guest in their home—and to hear about the trip; to see many things they brought from the factory. The large button mold was among the articles displayed. To me it appeared something that might be used for fireplace tongs, it was iron, and very heavy. I was shown many, many buttons—buttons with different type shanks, not all key shanks by any means. She gave me several buttons that she fastened to a card. The card bears her handwriting as to origin of the buttons, The specimens are self shanked, key shanked, and another type of metal shank. Perhaps I shall have these buttons photographed—front and back. If so, the picture will be published later.

    Mrs. Kelly has been quoted as saying "All Popper buttons have key shanks", or, "All key shanked buttons are Poppers". As a close friend, one who discussed Popper Buttons with her, I do not hesitate for even a moment to refute the statement attributed to her. It would be most unfair, when she cannot speak for herself, to permit the loose talk to be unchallenged. Button collectors are fortunate that they had Elsie Kelly and Gertrude Patterson to research Popper Buttons in the years when accurate information was available. We hope you enjoy reading information given in Mrs. Kelly's article.

—G. H. T. [Grace H. Toalson]

The National Button Bulletin, Vol. 25, No. 5,
"Story of the Leo Popper & Sons Glass Button Business - 1870 - 1917" (1966)