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Speaking only of the American Navy, the peacoat was introduced sometime during the first half of the 19th century.  I’m not certain what sorts of buttons those coats might have had.  During the Civil War, a “Goodyear Patent” button made of hard rubber was introduced.  It was large and slightly concave; it’s design had a couple variants, but both included the words “U.S. Navy” and a small, plain anchor (not fouled).  On some buttons the anchor was vertical, while on others horizontal. 

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century (and certainly by World War I), a different button appeared.  It was flat, of some plastic material (perhaps Bakelite?), had the large fouled anchor in the center, but with a ring of 13 stars surrounding it, spaced along the edge of the button face. (This button was of a somewhat larger diameter than present-day buttons.) At this time, the peacoat was longer, definitely covering the whole posterior, and it had four outside pockets — two handwarmer slash pockets like those today, and two horizontal flap pockets below.

By the 1920s, the present, familiar fouled anchor buttons had appeared (minus the stars), and they remained until the time of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was Chief of Naval Operations in the early 1970s; he made a number of uniform changes for sailors.  One of these changes was to replace the old peacoat buttons with 40-ligne (1″) metal buttons identical to those used by officers, warrant officers, and chief petty officers, except in a pewter-colored metal instead of gold.  These remained until 1984, when the old 50-ligne “traditional” fouled anchor buttons returned.  These “Zumwalt” buttons do have an anchor in the design, but only as a perch for a large eagle; they also feature a small stack of cannonballs.

While variants of the peacoat are used by many navies, and most use buttons with some variant of the fouled-anchor design (with a crown, if the country is a kingdom), it is also true that many of these buttons are of brass, gold plated or not; or of anodized aluminum (“Stabrite”).  Sometimes the buttons are of black plastic or horn, but with metal shanks rather than four holes for sewing. 

My conclusion?  The cloth and cut of the coat are more important that the buttons.  And gold, brass, pewter, or horn can be just as authentic as plastic or hard rubber, with or without a fouled anchor.  

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