In 1715, the death of the Sun King Louis 14 marked the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. New, elevated ideals of reason, tolerance and fraternity augured a new world of liberty and happiness for the people. A hundred years later, Napoleon’s 1815 defeat in Waterloo ended the most deadly streak of revolution and wars that Europe had ever seen. This is a story of buttons and battles. It is a tale that starts with the pen of an enlightened thinker, and ends on the European battlefields of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

Antique print titled Boutonnier Faiseur de Moules de Boutons. Extract from the Diderot / d'Alembert Encyclopedia, dated ca. 1779.
Credit Diderot, d'Alembert Encyclopedia

Denis Diderot was one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. Published from 1751, his Encyclopédie was a collective effort to incorporate all the world’s knowledge, from politics and philosophy to mechanical arts. It was meant to extend new ideas from the Paris salons to a broader, provincial public. One of the 7.000 entries written by Diderot himself was about the art of making buttons. Beautifully illustrated, it blurred the boundaries between craft and art.

Fifty years later, in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself as 1st Emperor of France. The same year he organized La Grande Armée in 144 numbered regiments. Millions of French provincial boys were drafted into servicing the freedom of the people on far away battlefields. Rather than symbols for liberty and happiness, their numbered uniforms became synonymous with the spread of destruction from Madrid to Moscow.

Diderot died 5 years before the French revolution. Surely he did not intend such a direct connection between the entries of bouton and bataille in his life’s work. History has a way of corrupting elevated new ideas before they radically change the world. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” was twisted by Hitler into a sordid “extermination of the weak',' before it led to modern day genetics.

The hundred years from Louis 14’s Versailles to Napoleon’s Waterloo marked a period of transition, eventually shaping society into what it is today. The numbered buttons of Napoleon’s 1st Empire are a testament to how new ideas eventually overcome their turbulent beginnings.