Sharing highlights from what’s likely to be her master’s thesis, Chrysalis archaeologist and field director Eileen Kao has developed her first CNEHA presentation entitled “Hot Button Topic.” Eileen performed additional research on the Revolutionary War era British regimental buttons we found at the Seaport last year and began exploring the idea that uniforms create a sense of belonging, affecting the behavior of those who wear them. Theories abound as to how clothing creates and enforces a sense of identity, and our unearthed button treasures most certainly played a part in defining the roles of the British, who are often depicted as ruthless and unyielding during the British occupation of NYC.
About the Buttons
Our excavation recovered a total of six buttons from three different regiments. Because there were many different ranks and types of regiments, button styles varied. Regimental soldiers wore plain buttons with simple raised numerals and a rope border. Rarely, a button would have the regimental number only. An officer’s button was more elaborate; it often featured a domed button cover in gold or silver over a button made from bone or other material. Based on their proximity to marked specimens, plain, unmarked metal buttons likely belonged to other military personnel.
Seduction, Hierarchy and Utility
The seduction, hierarchy and utilitarian principles generally define how clothing reflects identity. In relation to military clothing, the hierarchy principle applies to uniforms that reveal a soldier’s rank and position. The utilitarian principle relates to the function and purpose of the clothing. Today’s military uniforms are predominately utilitarian and discreet. In the past, battles were fought face-to-face, and ornate details were more prevalent. The seduction principle applies to body shape and perception. While often more relevant to women’s clothing, it was also utilized to enhance the perception of masculinity and strength. For example, military uniforms that accentuated the chest and shoulders implied greater strength; tall hats and heeled boots made officers look taller and more intimidating.
To a British soldier, wearing the redcoat uniform meant being a part of one of the strongest and most successful imperial nations of the world. The clothing itself imparted legitimacy and authority as well as a sense of solidarity. With buttons to further define hierarchy and implied superiority, the uniform may have made a significant contribution to the infamously ruthless behavior of high-ranking British officers. Anonymity is another factor that may have influenced British military behavior. Some psychologists believe that those defined as part of a group feel immune to personal blame. Soldiers could easily hide behind their uniforms and feel less accountable for cruel behaviors or lack of compassion.
Small Buttons with Big Stories
Although it’s impossible to track the exact history of our Revolutionary War Buttons, we can safely assume that it helped to play a symbolic role in the interactions between British soldiers and the residents of New York City.