Department of Commerce of USA
Special Consular reports
FOREIGN TRADE IN BUTTONS: 1ST APRIL 1916
In pre World War 1 times Austria-Hungry, Germany, France, Italy, England, Japan, and to a small extent, Spain, supplied the world’s (apart from the United States and Canada) buttons . The USA produced 90% of its own needs and greater than 50% of Canada’s. At the time of this report, the rest of the world outside of central Europe had to depend on USA, Japan, Italy and Spain for button supply. As the USA was by far the largest producer, there was considerable growth in its exports during the war. Therefore, this report was commissioned to supply information to the American industry. It was 182 pages long, so I’ll summarise over several posts. It provides interesting historical information about manufacturing, fashion and culture around the world. If you wish to read it in it’s entirety, see https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=d5MUAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PP1
Further information can be found from https://books.google.com.au/books?id=mXaWW7pFMIkC&pg=PA73&lpg=PA73&dq#v=onepage&q&f=false
Although importing was still happening from Great Britain, Italy and France in 1915, these countries were experiencing increased demands for uniform buttons, and problems of supply that allowed for countries such as Japan and America to increase their exports. For American manufacturers however, a challenge was to meet the low cost of buttons formerly sourced from Europe.
THE United States of America:
The trade was worth $19,476,056 in total in 1914. The table below shows that pearl button industry was the largest branch in quantity and value, followed by vegetable ivory.
America’s exports had nearly doubled in value from 1914 to 1915, with England, Canada, Australia and Cuba the largest purchasers. About two thirds of all vegetable ivory buttons were made in New York State. Two thirds of pearl button blanks were produced in Iowa but almost one half of finished pearl buttons were made in New York. Nearly all the bone buttons were made in Pennsylvannia. In 1916 there were around 20,000 people involved in the fresh-water pearl button industry. In 1917 around $45,000 value of these buttons were exported per monthly, with large qualitities going to central and South America. There were 112 ocean pearl factories in America in 1918, with most of that shell coming from the west coast of Australia.
The industry was not large with 15 factories in 1915. The main factories were located in Berlin (now called Kitchener) Waterloo, Toronto, Ganonoque and Montreal. America supplied 53% of its imports in 1914, rising to 64% in 1915. In Montreal the buttons made were mainly hand crochet, mohair and celluloid made mostly by makers of braid, cord and tassels rather than dedicated button producers. In Ottowa they made bone, metal and composition buttons. Wood buttons were also made in Canadian factories. In Ontorio manufacturers made vegetable ivory and fresh-water pearl buttons. Agate buttons were sourced from England and France, as they could not be sourced from America. Salt-water pearl buttons were being imported from Japan. There was an opportunity for American makers to meet the supply of fancy pearl and celluloid buttons previously sourced from Germany and France.
Buttons were usually bought through French and German wholesalers. Buttons favoured were pearl, metal, horn, paste, porcelain and composition and cloth covered. There was a demand for plain polished brass and tinned buttons for military uniforms. It was noted that an officer’s dress uniform coat alone required 2 to 2.5 dozen buttons! Only poor quality pearl and bone buttons were made in Mexico.
West Indies (including Cuba):
There were no local manufacturing excepting for a very small quantity of hand covered crochet buttons from Jamaica.
Mother-of -pearl and bone buttons were preferred, also glass, horn, brass and linen. Before the war these came from Britain, Germany and France; since the war more came from America. In Cuba the preference for quality salt water pearl buttons was strong. In Martinque, there were high import tariffs excepting for French goods for exporters to contend with.
Overall the market was moderate to low, due to many people being too poor to wear clothes requiring buttons. In some areas, only buttons that could to stand up to the hot humid conditions were suitable. “Horn deteriorates, composition splits, and metal buttons rust out.” A lot of white, washable clothes were worn. The only buttons made locally were cloth covered over wooden moulds. Most buttons were imported from England, Austria, Italy, Germany and France. Shipping and low pricing were issues to be resolved by potential American exporters.
In British Honduras the preferred buttons were vegetable ivory buttons for coats and vests, coloured to match the fabric, with cheaper versions for trousers, plus a smaller quantity of brass buttons for men, plus pearl and linen buttons for women. In Costa Rica the market required pearl, bone, vegetable ivory, metal and cloth covered buttons. In Gutemala some glass and porcelain buttons were imported, also cloth covered and bone buttons. French style, rather than American were preferred by upper class Gutemalians. In Honduras pearl, white china, bone vegetable ivory and non-rusting metal buttons were used, but the demand was not high. Puerto Cortes required pants buttons in bone, composition or metal, white china and pearl. There was low demand from Nicaragua, but some bone, horn, composition, china, vegetable ivory, celluloid and glass buttons were imported. Panama mainly imported white and light coloured buttons to match their light coloured clothing; mostly corozo, metal, glass and cloth covered. In Salvatore the most favoured buttons were glass, metal, and corozo.