Department of Commerce of USA
Special Consular reports
FOREIGN TRADE IN BUTTONS: 1ST APRIL 1916
“Northern Bohemia is noted throughout the world as a centre for the manufacture of buttons of almost every type, chiefly vegetable ivory, metal, glass, galalith, silk, linen and cotton covered crochet buttons, and cloth-covered buttons … The principal purchasers are the United States, Germany, England, Russia, Balkan States, the Orient, and South America. Fully 80 percent of the output … is produced by home or house workers.” However, there were 27 factories in Prague that had employed around 5,000 people pre war making glove, lead, snap, glass, enamel, rubber, buckhorn, wood, horn, bone, leather, linen, paper, MOP, porcelain, celluloid, composition, paper-mache, vegetable ivory, tin, zinc and thread buttons as well as wooden button moulds. Imports were limited to fancy women’s buttons and shoe buttons from Germany and cheap vegetable ivory from Italy.
The MOP industry had been declining even before the war due to increasing competition and reduced supply of shell from the Red Sea.
There were no button factories. Before the war buttons were imported from Germany, France, Austria and England. In 1915 consumers were using existing stock, and not yet planning for the future.
Apart from a small amount of hand-made buttons, there were no local manufacturers. Most imports came from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Japan.
Popular buttons in 1915 included ‘soft-back’, silk covered and ‘three-fold’ linen, horn, celluloid, pearl, vegetable ivory, glass and composition. Metal buttons very less popular but still used for uniforms, trousers and fancy. Vulcanite buttons were imported from America.
The ‘Syndicate of French Button Manufacturers’ estimated that the normal (non-wartime) production of buttons totaled US$5,790,000 to 6,755,000 in value. Materials used included pearl, bone,horn, polished and enameled and coloured metals, porcelain, glass, jet, vegetable ivory, ivory, tortoise shell, celluloid, wood, silk, mohair, linen, other textiles, leather, precious metals and stones. Different centres in France specialised in varying types of buttons; Paris for fancy/fashionable products; Oise for corozo, bone and pearl; Loiret for porcelain; Haute Garonne for bone; Charente, Vosges, Main-et-Loire and Isere for pearl. Isere also produced snap fasteners.
Despite the large production for home use and export, some buttons had still been imported from pre war Germany, Austria-Hungry, England, Italy (corozo) and Japan (pearl). Since the war more buttons were coming from Italy and England. There were shortages of metal snap fasteners, hat pin tops and cuff buttons.
“The button industry of Germany, which is probably the largest in the world, is centred principally in Saxony and the Rhine Province. Many millions of metal buttons are manufactured for military use, and there is scarely any other hard substance, organic or inorganic, which is not utilised in Germany for the manufacture of Buttons. Button making materials, especially the ivory or corozo nut, are imported in immense quantities at Hamburg, beyond even the needs of the German button manufacturers, Hamburg is, in fact, the largest market for button-making materials in the world … Only ivory-nut, glass and pearl buttons had been imported into Germany to any extent.” The vegetable -ivory was imported for men’s clothing had been cheaper to import from Italy, although they did also make there own, mainly in Schmolln. Fancy glass buttons had been imported from Bohemia.
The overseas trade in buttons for 1913 (after which statistics ere not available) is below:
The report noted that prior to the development of its own pearl button trade, the United States had been the largest importer of MOP buttons from Germany. This industry had been monopolised by Viennese manufacturers during the middle of the 19th century, then from Lower Austria, Bohemia and Moravia, then from 1870s onwards also Saxony, Berlin and Hanover. The success of the States own industry would practically exclude Germany pearl buttons from its market, however, there was a continued market for buttons made with feldspar there. There had been two factories in Herzogenrath that made most of the feldspar (agate, china poecelain) buttons in the country, mostly for cheap dresses and underwear. A firm in Stolberg had been a large exporter of metal snap fasteners to the USA.
Pre war buttons were a large item of export to the USA from Berlin, with 155 button manufacturers existing in the city and suburbs in 1915, including wood, horn, metal, pearl, celluloid, glass, ivory nut, cuff, textile, patent fasteners, moulds, button making machinery and materials.
“In Upper Silesia, where there is a large Polish element, shawls are worh rather than coats, but buttons are used upon women’s dresses for ornamentation only.” In Plauen, one small manufacturer supplied the crochet and pearl buttons favoured in that region.
As Germany was self-sufficent, the report concluded that there was little scope for American firms to export there, except perhaps for novelties or patented materials.