Birmingham Button Manufacturing: Part 3
An approximate timeline of button manufacturing in Birmingham:
Middle Ages: Horn and bone buttons produced from butchering waste.
pre 1600s: No established button trade.
1600s: Earliest records of button makers in Birmingham.
1700s: Metal shoe buckles go out of fashion. Industry responds by focusing on buttons instead. Early buttons possibly ‘linked buttons’ (like cuff links) which were worn by both men and women.
1713: Justin Amarongen or Amoronger, button maker died. Earliest mentioned button maker.
1730s onwards: John Taylor successful in mass production of gilded metal buttons. He was a pioneer in the use of the process of division of labour and an expert in jappaning. He also made steel buttons. The weekly produce of buttons alone at his works was at one time estimated at not less than £800 a week.
1739: Mr. Baddeley, an early manufacturer, retires. He was the inventor of the oval chuck, and several other appliances which greatly assisted in the improvement of the manufacture.
1749: Matthew Boulton Jnr joins his father’s metal button making business. Boulton perfected the production of cut-steel buttons.
1767: Sketchley’s Directory lists the variety of button manufacturing: ” This branch is very extensive and is distinguished under the following Heads viz. Gilt, Plated, Silvered, Lacquered (possibly jappaned), and Pinchback [pinchbeck], the beautiful New Manufacture Platina, Inlaid (with cut steel studs), Glass, Horn, Ivory, and Pearl: Metal Buttons such as Bath, Hard and Soft White, &c. there is likewise made Link Buttons in most of the above Metals, as well as of Paste, Stones, &c. in short the vast Variety of sorts in both Branches is really amazing, and we may with Truth aver that this is the cheapest Market in the World for these Articles.” Note: Pinchbeck, ‘Platina’ and ‘Bath’ were fine brasses which mimicked the look of gold.
1778: Mr. Clay, the inventor of papier mache, took out a patent for manufacturing buttons in this material. He also made slate buttons.
Late 1700s: a cheaper method to gild buttons by dipping the buttons with a thin layer of precious metal was developed. Parliament bans import of pearl-shell buttons, allowing Birmingham the opportunity to develop a specialist industry that would dominate world production. Fashion for buttons: Gentlemen wore gilt buttons on coats, vests and leggings; women and children preferred metal buttons to those of woven materials.
1801: horn buttons selling as low as 5-1/2d per gross.
1812: “Maltese buttons” (glass beads mounted in metal) made in large quantities.
1825: Flexible (cloth) shanks patented by B. Sanders Jnr.
c.1837: Gilt buttons go out of fashion, however some manufacturers continue to make these for uniforms or fancy wear, whilst others convert to materials such as brass, jet, ivory, Florentine and silk (covered), tortoiseshell, pearl, bone, and horn buttons. Fancy silk buttons with a centred pattern patented by William Elliott. This was very successful and popular for a while. Note that porcelain and glass buttons were not produced in Birmingham at this stage. The fashion is for fewer and less ornate buttons than previously.
1841: R. Prosser, a Birmingham man, patents a method for making porcelain buttons. The 3-fold linen button invented by Humphrey Jeffries and patented by John Ashton. This would completely overtake the Dorset button for use in underclothing.
c.1857: Vegetable ivory, or Corozo nut, introduced to the button trade.
1865: Mechanisation of button manufacturing had been established. Around 300 people engaged in making small glass buttons for shoes.
1866: According to John Pemberton Turner, who published an article about Birmingham’s button trade, there were employed approximately:
About two thirds of these were women and children, some as young as 6 years, as they were cheaper to employ. The writer would have preferred the women to be kept at home attending “to useful housewifely duties, and seeing that her home is orderly, neat, and clean for her husband’s reception and comfort”.
WW1: Much of the button trade is given over to war time requirements. For example, at J.R. Gaunt & Son Ltd., the company employed over 600 people and worked round the clock, supplying cap badges and buttons for every branch of the Empire Armed Forces.