7th September 2019

History of button manufacturing in Birmingham: Part 2

In the first part I mentioned that Birmingham was called “the city of a thousand trades”. It was also dubbed, by politician Edmund Bourke, as “the toyshop of Europe”. The term ‘toy’ meant a small, decorative, personal metallic object, such as buttons, buckles, boxes, caddy spoons, jewellery and other trinkets. However, they also produced buttons of fabric, wood, bone, horn (the button trade started in Birmingham in the Middle Ages using horn and bone from the local meat trade), glass and pearl shell. In fact after a ban on importing pearl buttons at the end of the 18th century, Birmingham became famous for production of mother-of-pearl buttons, the shells being imported from Australia, Malaysia, the South Pacific and the Americas.

According to the website ‘oldcopper.org’ … ” in 1780 there were 104 listed button manufacturers, at a time when men were paid 7 shillings a week and children one shilling a week when they reached the ripe old age of ten years.” In the late 18th century, most button production was done by families in their own yards, each performing a given step in the process of making a button. 

Birmingham’s history of metalworking, combined with access to materials, skills, workers and the new train network, meant that it came to dominate button production by the end of the 18th century.  The city was able to compete with local manufacturing in places like France and Holland as they were price competitive due to the mechanical processes they had developed. Portugal and Spain ended up prohibiting Birmingham metal ware from being imported to protect their manufacturers.

In 1830 there were approximately 17,000 people involved in the button industry. As production became mechanised within larger factories this number dropped to around 6,000 by 1865. Stamping, pressing, piercing and polishing were now performed using newly developed machinery. An exception to this was the production of pearl-shell buttons which, due to the fragile nature of the shell, were still made by more highly skilled and highly paid craftsmen in small workshops.

From The book of Trades, or Library of Useful Arts Part III, 3rd ed. 1806. Thanks to www.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk   The worker raises a weight with a die attached to stamp a design upon the buttons.




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