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Department of Commerce of USA
Special Consular reports
FOREIGN TRADE IN BUTTONS: 1ST APRIL 1916
Men’s suits (coat, vest, trousers) were usually trimmed with vegetable-ivory. Overcoats required large horn buttons. Tweed suits and jackets sometimes leather or galalith. Morning coats, which were not being worn as often, used silk covered buttons. Khaki uniforms required metal buttons made in Birmingham. Women’s suits had either vegetable ivory or cloth covered. Cloaks used fancy celluloid or celluloid and enamel. Underwear, shirts and blouses used pearl. Some underwear used linen buttons. Printed celluloid were also popular for women’s wear.
Pearl buttons had been imported from Vienna, but were now coming from America, Japan and France. Buttons were previously imported from Austria-Hungry, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and elsewhere. Because of the war, Austria and Germany were not trading, and France and Italy were not able to supply as much as usual. In general, prices had risen considerably since the start of the war.
There was less ready-made men’s clothing made in England compared with In the USA, so British tailors did a relatively larger trade in buttons than American. Some button types, for example galalith button, could no longer be obtained. Metal buckles, snaps and clasps were in short supply.
In 1916 Birmingham, the largest button manufacturing centre in the UK, had around 20 firms pouring out an estimated 9,000,000 gross annual output due to the large military requirements. Also, British firms were meeting the local short fall of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000 of pre-war imports from Germany and Austria.
Since 1865 pearl shell had been obtained from Australia, but in latter years had become more expensive, so that celluloid, galalith and “variable vegetable preparations” were tending to replace shell.
In Bristol, the production of woolen clothing by both outworkers and factories, including for government contracts, used a lot of buttons. Buttons were also needed for the export clothing trade, and for the manufacturing of waterproofs. The clothing factories of Leeds, “second only to London in size” used large numbers of vegetable ivory buttons, also bone, horn, celluloid and tin, none of which were made locally.
Nottingham had an extensive industry manufacturing blouses, hosiery, gloves, and footwear that needed buttons, including fancy coloured glass, vegetable ivory, pearl and xylonite for women’s wear; metal, bone, vegetable ivory and cloth covered for menswear; papier-machie and pearl for footwear. Pre war only 5% of these buttons came from Britain. Some covered, bone and vegetable ivory had been made locally. Demand for American stocks had increased.
In Wales, no buttons were made. No buttons were imported directly. All were imported from or through places such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and London. There was a need for strong workwear buttons from the industrial centres.
Buttons were not manufactured to any extent in Scotland but imported from Austrian, German and English manufacturers. It was felt that American buttons were too expensive to compete with other markets for menswear, but that this was not a problem for women’s fashions where originality and variety were more important than price. In general the quality of buttons and cloth were not as good as they had been. Before the war “black braid buttons made in Barmen, Germany” were popluar in Glasgow, as were ivory nut. Fresh water pearl buttons “plain, white, smoked, fancy, coloured and carved”, were being imported from America, as were ivory nut and papier mache. Japan and Italy were also supplying buttons. It was noted that the quality control of American pearl buttons was not as good as that of the Japanese.
The only buttons made in Ireland were crochet buttons. The local clothing industry was centred in Belfast, using large quantities of pearl and bone ( actually vegetable ivory) buttons, with composition coat and metal trouser buttons from America. The better quality pearl buttons were bought from England, lesser quality from America, England and Italy. It was felt that the British and American metal and composition fashion buttons were inferior to the Austrian and German ones they replaced.
At the time Malta was a British colony.
Most button trade was done by tailors, as there was no ready-made industry. Pre war they were imported from Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Italy and England. As most Maltese were of the agricultural class, cheaper buttons predominated.