23rd February 2020

Department of Commerce of USA

Special Consular reports


Part 6:


” The ‘button’ in general use by the Chinese in their native style garments is the ingenious cloth knot of the same material as the garment; the buttonhole is a small loop of the same material stitched in braid form on the garment.”

“For many years brass buttons, globe or ball shaped, with ground surfaces worked up in a variety of fancy decorations oftentimes bearing a stamped design of some Chinese conventional character, signifying happiness, long life, or wealth, constituted the bulk of the imports of foreign buttons. Since the 1911 revolution in China, however, the use of these globe or ball-shaped buttons has fallen off. In their place are found fancy buttons in various styles, usually on the garments of the women, the ornamental parts being of vari-coloured glass, principally to appear like diamonds, set in brass or other metal.”

“As to foreign staple buttons, these are, of course in used for … the foreign resident … and by Chinese who have adopted the foreign style of dress.”

Excepting for some cheap buttons, including pearl and brass, manufactured around Canton, there was no button manufacturing in China. The shell and bone buttons were all hand made. Imported snap fasteners were imported from Germany pre war, since then from Japan. Fancy buttons were sold in sets of 5 mounted on cards, as that was the number usually found on the front of a Chinese gown.

“Buttons, brass and fancy” imported into China. Note that Hong Kong was only a transshipment point for foreign supplies. The Japan buttons were mostly very cheap ones.

Hong Kong (and Southern China):

Nickle covered steel was not suitable as it rusted in the climate; bronze-nickle was better. Bone buttons could become oxidised. Some glass and Japanese pearl  and cloth-covered linen buttons. Irish crochet buttons made in local convents were sold by hawkers!

Northern China:

As for Southern China, cheap brass, pearl,  imitation pearl and bone buttons were chiefly used. It was noted that the Japanese is this area tended to own at least own foreign-style suit for business and dress clothes, as well as wearing foreign-style overcoats. Buttons here were all imported, chiefly from Japan but also Austrian, including metal, bone, porcelain, shell, buffalo horn,  and nuts. No buttons were manufactured here.

French Indio-China:

This included the regions of included Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Guangzhouwan. No buttons were manufactured there, with around 20,000 kilos imported annually. There use was mainly limited to Europeans and the Chinese business community.


“Buttons are largely used in India by the middle and better classes of natives, as well as by Europeans “. these included  including pearl,mainly from Japan, and ivory nut and china from Italy and metal. “There is a demand for lentille China buttons, made in Italy, on account of their cheapness”. (“Lentille” is French for lentil. Were the buttons shaped like, or as small as, lentiles?) Some leather, and better vegetable ivory came from Britain.

Low quality pearl, as well as horn, bone and coconut shell were manufactured locally to a small extent. Italian buttons had replaced German and Austrian, with some coming from England. Brown and white buttons suitable for tropical clothes were especially in demand.


The button industry was the reverse of many countries already mentioned, in that there was limited local consumption, but a large export of shell, horn, brass and copper buttons. The metal buttons were only sold to China and other “Far Eastern” countries. In 1915 there were over 250 factories in Osaka alone.

The buttons that were imported had come mainly from Germany. These included brass, copper, rubber and covered buttons.


No buttons were manufactured locally. Bone, pearl, metal, and glass ere imported mainly from Holland, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan.


Leave a Reply