I was inspired to re-look at pearl-shell button history because I am quite smitten by the variety and design of quaint store cards that were produced for the sale of these buttons. Flowers, elegant ladies, handsome professional men, doctors and nurses, babies and children, palm trees, birds, mermaids and more were depicted on cards of MOP buttons. Some of the most pedestrian shirt button had the fanciest graphics. Love it!
Whilst I am awaiting the arrival of a variety of American cards I thought I would revisit the Australian cards in my collection. Some are plain, some fancy.
If you read American websites, etc, you would be forgiven for thinking that the history of pearl-shell buttons begins and ends with the industry in Muscatine, Iowa. Whilst this trade was important, the story is of course, much older and larger than that.
Possibly the oldest shell button found is around 5000 years old from Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. Some prehistoric examples were carved and pierced so that they could be sewn as ornaments onto clothing.
The banning by the United Kingdom parliament of the importation of pearl buttons in the late 18th century lead to a boom in their production in Birmingham, which was already an established button production centre. Pearl-shell buttons production was labour intensive, with multiple (up to 80 for fancy items!) steps that required manual handling, even after the introduction of machinery into production. The shell used was imported from Australia, the South Pacific, Malaysia and the Americas. A report in 1866 into the Birmingham button trade included a section on pearl-shell. Seehttps://hammond-turner.com/index.php/component/content/article/14-sample-data-articles/125-the-birmingham-button-trade-part-6?Itemid=435
There must have been an industry in Europe as the father of the trade in America, John Frederick Boepple, was an immigrant German button maker with experience in making shell buttons. Due to high importation tariffs , he moved to America in 1887 to avail himself of the plentiful freshwater mussel shells to be harvested from the Mississippi River. Luckily for him, tariffs were introduced in 1890 making pearl shell buttons imported into America expensive. From small beginnings in 1891, a boom industry evolved with a peak of 49 shell button factories and many small backyard units making and supplying blanks. By 1905, Muscatine and neighbouring regions were producing around 37% of the worlds buttons. Muscatine was “the Pearl Button Capital of the World”. Production peaked in 1916, with thousands employed in the industry and millions of dollars earned. However, over harvesting, interruption by WW2, competition from overseas , changing fashions and the rise of plastic contributed to the industry’s decline by the 1950s. Today, plastic buttons are made in Muscatine.
National Button Bulletin, September 1954 p.10
National Button Bulletin, September 1954 p.11
NB: Small amount of stud buttons were made from American fresh water shell from as early as 1802, according to a report that year. The fresh water shell that inspired Boepple went in search of 20 years later were probably sent from Illinois in 1872 by William Salter to Germany and reached Boepple’s father, although at the time the potential was not realised.
From the National Button Bulletin, May 1950 p.166\
Shell was exported from Australia from the 1850s until the 1950s to England, America and later, Japan. When Japan was occupied after WW2 from 1945-1952, General Douglas MacArthur was entrusted to revive Japan’s economy. Buttons were among the products made and exported to the world. The words “Occupied Japan” or “Made in Occupied Japan” were required to be printed on products.
Australian shell was also exported to Israel for the production of exquisite, hand-carved, “Bethlemhem Pearl Buttons”. The production of shell buttons in Australia occurred intermittently from 1880, but was never significant. See the Pearl Sell page of this blog for more on this topic.According to the British Shell Club, pearl buttons are being produced today in America, China, Indian, Japan and the Philippines from a variety of species.
In 1934 Qantas and Imperial Airways ( a forerunner of British Airways) formed Qantas Empire Airways Limited (QEA as seen on the button). The first services were between Brisbane and Darwin, extending to Singapore in 1935. Most of the fleet were used for war service during WW2. Post war, services were extended to Britain. The airline was nationalised in 1947 with domestic services transferred to Trans Australian Airlines and Qantas providing international services. The name changed in 1967 to Qantas Airways Limited. (NB Stokes & sons changed to Stokes Australia in 1962)
This Victorian Government owned corportation has provided regional passenger train and coach services since 1983. It also provided rail freight services until 1999. In 1995 the original logo (seen on this button) was altered.
As you can see, both buttons are marked ‘BOWLEY & CO MELBOURNE’, although one is brass coloured, much polished and with a loose shank whilst the other is copper coloured and with a fixed shank. Alfred Bowley & Co were military and naval outfitters in Flinders Lane, Melbourne from c.1885 until at least 1956.
Royal Artillary uniform buttons have a crown depicted over the cannon and ramrod; this style without the crown was used for the pre-federation Permanent Artillery Artillery Corps which was created in 1870 after the use of British Corps was ceased, and lasted until 1901. (It was also used later from 1924 for Artillery Association Uniformed Staff in the United Kingdom.)
The other button of this design in my collection is by Stokes and Martin, dating it from 1870-1883.
Top Row L to R: Royal Australian Army Service Corps, Australian Army Catering Corps, Australian Army Armoured Corps.
Bottom Row L to R: Australian Army, Royal Australian Army medical Corps.
AUSTRALIAN ARMY CATERING CORPS:
This corp in, not surprisingly, responsible for the preparing and serving of food. Prior to 1939, the role of cook was a despised and lowly role, with poor quality food the result. In 1939 Sir Cedric Staton Hicks recognised the problem and set about improving the quality of supplies, the quality of equipment, and the quality of cooks. The later he achieved by raising their status, pay and training against considerable opposition, and in 1943 the Corps was raised with Hicks as the first director.
Post WW2 the Corps came under the control of the Royal Australian Army Service Corps until its disbanding in 1973. During 1990s there was outsourcing of training, and a reduction in numbers with the future of the Corps in doubt, but it continues to this day.
AUSTRALIAN ARMY ARMOURED CORPS:
Australian Tank Corps was formed in 1928. In 1941 it became the Australian Army Armoured Corps. Due to the changing times, the Light Horse were absorbed into this corps.
Blessed Easter! Hope you are all having a safe and happy break. Carol sent me a list of the buttons in the photo she shared: as well as the ones I have recently featured there are a few those stories can be found in the ‘Branded buttons’ section of this blog: I. & J. Roff of Ballarat, Mutal Stores and Buckley & Nunn ,both of Melbourne. There are some generic brandings: Double Ring, Ne Plus Ultra, Imperial and Excelsoir. There are 3 from London and one from Madras!
There is one I had not spotted: J. Allender of Ballarat
From 1874 until 1883, John Allender and T.W. White were in partnership as tailors and outfitter at 117 Sturt Street, Ballarat. After their partnership dissolved, Allender continued alone until 1906.
Amusingly, Carol also sent me a photo of a Commonwealth Peace Officer uniform button, by Stokes and Sons, posed upon her sandled foot. Needs must, I guess, whilst you are camping! Nice button!
According to Wikipedia: “A Peace Officer Guard (POG) was established in 1925 and by the 1940s consisted of several hundred uniformed officers who primarily provided physical security at critical government locations across the nation.”
A big hello to the regular visitor to this site from Samoa; I guess you are a fellow collector.
William Thomas Walsh moved from Hamilton in 1882 to Ararat where he was a tailor and outfitter until his business became bankrupt in 1892. He was the manager for the Palace tailoring Company in Wangaratta from around 1900-1904, after which he moved to Melbourne. He became the head cutter for Messers Davies, Deery & Co, and died in 1935.
Edward James Gleeson was born in Maryborough in 1871. In 1902 he sold his tailoring business there and moved to Ararat where he lived and work for the rest of his line. He died in 1954.
J. Payne & Co: Ballarat
This is an example of a button that can be dated to a narrow era. James Payne opened took lease on a store in Sturt Street, Ballarat in 1902. He was 35years old at that time, so had worked elsewhere, or for some other firm before then.
On Boxing Day of 1903 he embarked on a world tour that did not see him return to Ballarat until October 1904. In 1907 in was reported that he was well established as a wholesale woollen merchant in New Zealand.