Learn how to recognise and label historical buttons with Deputy Curator Georgina

Postal uniforms have been adorned with buttons since the 1700s, when they were inscribed with the words ‘General Post Office’ for the crew on packet ships. With the introduction of the Penny Black in 1840, the postal service grew, with new jobs requiring unique uniforms. Buttons have come in all different sizes, designs, and materials. So how can you identify them? Read on to learn what questions to ask.

Which crown is it?

The Tudor Crown

The Tudor crown was created for either Henry VII or Henry VIII. It was used by Henry VIII and became part of the coronation for each of his children. The crown was a symbol of power and monarchy. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell ordered it melted down.

The St Edward’s Crown

The St Edward’s crown was made for Charles II in 1661 as a replacement for the destroyed Tudor crown. The crown is made of solid gold, decorated with precious stones and is used in the coronation of modern monarchs.

A crown with a top that curves to create a heart shape. The crown is decorated with fleur de lys, a lily flower with three petals, and a cross at the top and in the middle. Below the crown, the laurel leaves.
A crown with a top similar to an upside down U. The crown is decorated with fleur de lys, a lily flower with three petals, and a cross at the top and in the middle.
Lapel badge with a St Edward’s Crown worn by Postmen Higher Grade, E1967/06

The best way to tell these crowns apart is to look at the top of the crown. If the top is curved, similar to an upside down ‘U’, this is the Tudor Crown. If however it curves to produce a heart shape, this is the St Edward’s Crown.

Knowing which crown you have will help you to date the button. The St Edward’s Crown was used during the reign of Queen Victoria and later for Queen Elizabeth II from 1954. The current King Charles III and those between Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II used the Tudor Crown, mimicking their cyphers. You can also see slight stylistic differences to the St Edward’s crown of Victoria, with pinched arches, compared to the rounded heart shape used by Elizabeth II.

A brass bottom with a crown with flatten hearts-shaped arches, decorated with lily flowers and crosses at the top and middle areas. Around the crown, the text London District Post Office

Victorian Button with pinched crown arches, E10259/233

But what is a cypher?

The Royal Cypher is a way of combining a monarchs’ initials and title, this can either be standalone letters or entwined like a monogram. They often include ‘R’ which stands for either ‘Rex’ or ‘Regina’, which is Latin for King or Queen.

Royal cyphers since the reign of Queen Victoria until Charles III.

In 1975, uniform buttons were re-designed to include Queen Elizabeth II’s cypher ‘EIIR’ below the St Edward’s crown. This was controversial in Scotland as Queen Elizabeth is considered the first of her name in Scotland, as Queen Elizabeth I of England didn’t rule Scotland. In December 1978 Mr G. Tilling, Chairman of the Scottish Postal Board, wrote a letter to Postal Headquarters in London about the new design explaining that they should have been consulted and “these buttons will not be worn in Scotland.

A black bottom with the text Post Office and E-II-R (Elizabeth II Regina). On top, the St Edward's Crown.

Plastic Elizabeth II Post Office Button, E14359/01

210,000 buttons had already been distributed and were considered unusable. As an interim measure, the Post Office reverted to the earlier design of block GPO letters below the St Edward’s crown.

This is very similar story to with Scottish pillar box cyphers. To learn more about cyphers and how to spot them on pillar boxes, check out our webpage Royal Cyphers on Letter Boxes – The Postal Museum.

What font is used?

Under the crown design you will find the letters ‘GPO’, this stands for the ‘General Post Office’. The postal service opened to the public in 1635 and became known as the General Post Office from 1660. This name was used up until 1969, when the organisation ceased to be a government department and became a nationalised industry – the ‘Post Office Corporation’.

The font of this text has changed over time. The fancy script came first with the clear block letters appearing later.

Black bottom with calligraphic overlapping letters G and R (George Rex) and the Tudor Crown
A black bottom with clear letters that read GPO (General Post Office) and the St Edward’s crown
Example of block lettering. GPO in block lettering underneath the St Edward’s Crown, E15128/03

What is it made of?

The material of the button is sometimes misleading. Both brass and plastic buttons have been used throughout the 20th and 21st centuries so it’s always best to focus on the crown rather than the material!

Red Plastic Button with block GPO lettering below a St Edward’s Crown, E6798/24

Test your knowledge

Here is an example of a button. Put your detective skills to the test – can you identify the age of the button? The answer is at the end of this blog post!

Don't tell anyone, but the answer is: Brass button with Tudor Crown detail, used between 1901 and 1954

To learn more about buttons, badges and the uniforms worn by postal workers, check out our temporary exhibition ‘Dressed to Delivery’ until September 2024.

Answer to the test

Brass button with Tudor Crown detail, used between 1901 and 1954