Department of Commerce of USA
Special Consular reports
FOREIGN TRADE IN BUTTONS: 1ST APRIL 1916
In Athens there was a factory producing horn buttons, and in Piraeus one making iron buttons. Only a small quantity of cloth-covered buttons were made in Salonika.
Most buttons, including glass, bone, horn, metal and pearl varieties, were imported from Germany and Austria. Due to the war, some business was starting with English firms. Cheap prices, not quality, was what mattered.
There were 55 button factories in Italy making amber, coral, horn, ivory, pearl, tortoise shell, vegetable ivory, wood, horsehair, leather, celluloid, gutta percha and cloth buttons, and an unknown number making papier-mache, metal, porcelain and glass buttons as by-products. The industry was centred in Milan, Piacenza and Bresica, employing 5,870 people. Italy exported buttons, particularily corozo but also papier-mache, bone, pearl, porcelain, glass and silk, around the world. In 1913 over $3,000,000 worth of vegetable ivory buttons were exported.
They imported some buttons such as pearl, porcelain and glass from Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Japan and Turkey pre-war. Although self-sufficent for many types of buttons, there was demand for bachelor buttons, shoe (made of papier-machie), pearl, celluloid, snap fasteners, glass and agate buttons to be met.
Papier-mache was used extensively for Italian soldiers uniform buttons! A trade in novelty items, including buttons, made of glass, cheap enamel and metal had “flourished under the stimulus of patriotism and war fever” for items of patriotic designs.
Challenges to the industry had included a cholera outbreak in 1911 that resulted in new regulations making the purchase of bone more difficult with a resultant increase in price. In 1913 there had been a decline in trade due to fashion changes and financial conditions. “When war broke out in 1914 … foreign markets were almost closed, foreign credits were unavailable, and many factories closed their doors. After the crisis passed factories reopened and a demand sprang up for cheap buttons for military purposes, but many factories are still (in 1915) running on half time. In spite of the increased price of raw materials, fuel, dyes, etc., prices of finished goods are the same and the industry is in a crippled condition.” Another challenge was that most materials for button manufacture were imported, and becoming scarce. There was competition for the raw materials for the making of uniform buttons.
There was little local industry, some bone, ivory and buffalo horn made in Amsterdam. Most buttons imported from Germany, Austria and Italy and some higher quality items from France and England. Popular buttons included “Steinnuss” (ED: translates stone-nut i.e. tagua nut) which “whilst very expensive, are much liked for overcoats and mantles”, also pearl, horn and linen. A demand for American press buttons existed.
Ready made clothing was manufactured in Norway, but there were only metal and covered buttons being made in Christiania so an import market existed. The traditional exporters had been Italy, Germany and England.
Common types of buttons used, in decreasing order, were vegetable ivory, bone, metal and paper/pressed cardboard. Also used were xylonite, linen, tin, celluloid, stone and glass. The lacquered pressed cardboard buttons were very cheap and came from Germany.
Inferior quality buttons were made at around 8 factories in Oporto from horn, corozo, pearl, glass, slate, wood, metal and cloth. Higher qualitity products made from glass, porcelain, coloured aluminium and other materials were imported, pre war from France, Germany and Austria. As supplies from these countries had ceased, stocks were low in 1915.
The only exportation of buttons was a small amount to Portugese colonies.
There existed 28 button factories in Moscow and Lodz supplying cheap coconut, Steinnuss (vegetable ivory) and horn buttons. These had existed for less than a decade.
The most popular type of buttons in the Caucasus were the cheap four-hole types made from coconut in Moscow. Also popular were imitation-ivory made from composition. Most imported buttons came from Austria-Hungry, and most of these were pearl. Linen and steel trouser buttons had been imported from Poland, but at the time of the report this supply had been completely cut off.
In the Riga district, most buttons had come from Germany and Austria, including buffalo horn, linen, horn, jet, glass, pearl and Steinnuss. There was no local manufacturing in this district, and button stocks were very depleted, with dealers hoping to gain supplies from the USA, despite the city’s population being only half normal, and money tight.
Finland: Note that Finland was part of Russia until declaring independence in 1917.
There was insignificant manufacture of buttons, with 2 or 3 factories doing a small amount of business. Most buttons used locally were bone or horn, but not shell, from Germany and Russia, and Denmark, with better class buttons from France.
Spain had a significant button industry but still imported a third of its requirements. Its export market had increased due to war time shortages. There were 85 factories making stamped metal items, including buttons, in Barcelona; 18 making imitation pearl in Cardeau; 1 making only vegetable ivory in Gerona and 5 making a variety of non-metal types including bone. Pearl buttons were made in Valencia. Many of the factories were no more than small workshops. Buttons were also made in considerable numbers in homes. two factories in the Madrid district made cheap grade white metal and brass uniform buttons.
Buttons used locally included bone, imitation pearl, real pearl and novelty buttons, also metal and Irish crochet, horn, celluloid, china, porcelain, composition, papier-mache for shoes and gaiters, and metal and gutta-percha for trousers. Pre war buttons imported buttons came from Germany, France, Japan and Austria. Compostion buttons were called botones de pasta, vegetable ivory, botones de coco.
There was only one factory making snap fasteners in all of Spain which was unable to meet demand. Most imported snaps had come from Austria; with the closure of this market prices had risen from 40-80cents to $2.50 per gross. Novelty buttons were also in low supply. Black glass were in demand for mourning buttons.
The stocks of buttons previously bought from Austria and Germany had run out. Bone, pearl and pressed metal buttons for overall were the main requirements.
There were only 4 button factories in Sweden. These made uniform buttons of brass, nickle, iron and lead, including “yellow anchor buttons” for boys clothing. Some were exported to Denmark. Ivory nut and pearl buttons for underwear and shirts were the main demand, also bone, glass and covered, Germany and Austria had supplied most of the pearl buttons and Italy the ivory nut, and England textile covered buttons. German buttons were said to be half the price of American.
Metal buttons, primarily used for uniforms, were the only type made in Switzerland. Vegetable ivory (Steinnuss) for men’s clothing predominated, also cheaper metal trouser buttons. Fancy buttons of celluloid, glass, cloth, horn, wood and galalith were sold. It was noted that although it had been discovered 10-15 years ago, galalith had only been successfully used for buttons for 4-5 years. Supplies of casein to make it were unobtainable, however, there were large stocks of galalith existing. The Swiss were having no issues obtaining supplies of buttons from the “Belligerent countries”. Therefore there did not seem to be encouragement for American manufacturers to sell here.