Whilst I await new Australian finds, I’ll spend a little time reviewing the history of button manufacturing in Birmingham, historically one of the main button making cities of the world.
Birmingham’s growth from a 7th century village to a 12th century market town to a large city was largely based on metalworking industries. Textiles, leather working and iron working were local industries from medieval times. By the early 16th century, the metal working industry was increasing in importance, with tools, knives, nails and other goods being made by an increasing number of smiths and artificers and traded to cities around Britain, and then the world. The trade became specialised, including hiltmakers, bucklemakers, scalemakers, pewterers, wiredrawers, locksmith, swordmakers, solder and lead workers. An act prohibiting foreign button importation in 1662 encouraged the local production of buttons.
In the 18th century, Birmingham was a centre of development in science and technology which lead to innovation in manufacturing and would lead to the first Industrial Revolution (c.1760-1820). (This was because the city enjoyed more political and economical freedom than some parts of the country and economical factors that favoured entepreneurs.) One important innovation in 1775 was the industrial steam engine by James Watt and Matthew Boulton, which would power manufacturing machinery. At this stage Birmingham was the third most populous city in England.
As the city was not a port, like other main industrial cities of the time, it specialised in small, high value metal items (known as ‘toys’) such as buttons, buckles, guns, snuff boxes, watches and jewellery, rather than bulk commodities such as cotton. As well as technical innovations, there developed the innovation of extreme division of labour, for example where the fifty to seventy processes to make a button were performed by a similar number of workers. This proved to be very productive and gave an advantage over other manufacturers. The manufactures were quick to respond to changes in fashion and to produce new products.
During the 19th century industry changed from mainly small workshops to large factories. During the first and second World Wars, Birmingham’s industrial output was very important to Britain. Post WW2, political policies tried to limit both the city’s population growth and industries (to attempt to grow other locations), with a resultant decline in diversity. “The City of Thousand Trades” became the city of British Leyland. In the 1970s its industrial economy collapsed with the loss of 200,000 jobs, mainly from the manufacturing sector. An article (see 3rd reference below) stated that in 2012 the last Birmingham button manufacturer, James Grove and Sons, closed down; however Firmin & Sons Ltd, formed in 1655, still exists, although now ” we are now a designer and supplier of every form of uniform, livery or badge, and the accessories and accoutrements to go with them.”