19th October 2019

 More on Vegetable Ivory (or Cathy is greatly irritated):

I’ve just been reading a book originally published in 1946 by Edward Louis Newberger, who was a member of the Blumenthal family of button makers; The Button Industry in the United States. Overall it was fascinating, but I was annoyed so see the same old erroneous data give about the origin of the vegetable ivory button trade that appears all over the internet and books. It is an error easily debunked with a little research.

Tagua nut buttons may have been “invented” in 1859 in Austria (as quoted in the book) but this was not the earliest. The Austrians did not start the tagua button industry in 1865, or should I say, their industry may have started then but  it started earlier elsewhere. Factories in England did NOT start making them in 1862 (again, quoted in the book), but around 1858.

If you search in Trove (https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/?q=  and enter the term ‘vegetable ivory’ you will see that in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27th January 1846, that a case of buttons had been imported including “Florentine, twist, gambroon, bronzed, patent horn, sporting, vegetable, ivory, and other coat and vest buttons.”  Then an article about an American Tariff Bill was reported in The Shipping Gazette and Sydney General Trade List on 5th May 1849. Amongst the many items details it mentioned  “manufacturers of bone, shell, horn, pearl, ivory or vegetable ivory … ” .  In an article about vegetable ivory written in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 18th September 1860 the author, George Bennett mentioned he had recently visited Birmingham where he “found that for the last two years these nuts have been used in that city in the manufacture of buttons; they are found durable and capable of receiving the various dyes equal to ivory, and are made at considerably less price than the latter material.” The Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1852 included items manufactured from vegetable ivory, although it does not state what items.

Sunbury American and Shamokin journal. [volume], October 21, 1843. ‘Ivory nut’ was known in North America and England by this date.

On 12th August, 1843 the Indiana State Sentinel reported that ” the English are manufacturing a variety of fancy articles out of the nut”. The Ottawa Free Trader printer an article titled ‘Wonderful Trees’ on the 26th February 1853:

Most web pages about the history of tagua nut/vegetable ivory/ corozo buttons repeat the same old story about how the nuts were used as ballast in ships sailing to Europe, where they were dumped on the docks until around 1865 enterprising Austrian/German wood carvers realised their potential, or something along that line. This is a very Eurocentric view of history, and ignores that the Spanish were exporting produce from South America long before this. The Historical Dictionary of Ecuador by George M. Lauderbaugh states that along with cacao and sugar, in 1835 Ecuador’s other main exports were “Panama hats, balsa and tagua (ivory) nuts used in the production of buttons” which may mean the trade started earlier.  Wikipedia states that “First records of tagua production are for 1840-1841 when it made up a negligible fraction of Colombian exports. The Cultural History of Plants by Sir Ghillean Prance,and Mark Nesbitt states that “Sir William Hooker may have first introduced vegetable ivory to England in 1826” although of course that does not mean it was used in manufacturing that early.

Production of V.I. buttons  in the USA began either in 1862 or 1864, depending on who you believe. However, it is clear the industry predated this by possibly 2-3 decades.



2 thoughts on “19th October 2019

  1. Deb

    Do you have “From Nut to Button” by Pat Fields? She says tagua significant in English button industry as early as 1843 from “Penny Cyclopedia” printed in London. Pat also says: “Others say Pizarro brought the nuts back to Spain in 1528 & buttons were worn by 16th & 17th century couriers (no reference give). Deb

  2. abuttonadmin Post author

    I have read it in the club’s library, but do not have it to hand. Thanks for the information to add to this post. I knew the dates of 1859 and 1865 were too late!

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