If you have read my page on tailors’ buttons you’ll know that they were commonly made of “vegetable ivory”, also known as Corozo or Tagua or ivory nut. This very hard, white substance (albumen) is in the main sourced from the seeds of a variety of South American palm trees, Phylelphous macrocarpa, (although some other varieties from other parts of the world are used). These particularly grow around the Magdelena River in Columbia.
The palm tree was first described by Europeans in 1798. It was also noted at that time that the locals carved objects such as toys, walking stick knobs and reels from the kernels. The trunk is short, rarely higher than 6 foot, from which grow a tuft of large, feathery leaves. The fruit occur in clusters around the base of the leaves on short stalks. The fruit is 25-30 inches in circumference and has a woody covering with 3 to 5 lobes, within each lobe occur 6 to 9 large, hard, smooth, oval to spherical seeds of a grayish-brown colour. These are the “ivory nuts”. The fruit take about 2 years to ripen, and then fall to the forest floor.
Around 1847 30 tons were shipped to the USA. In Birmingham button makers started using the nuts around 1858, and the cost was much less than real ivory. Perhaps 8-10 thousand gross were being made per month in that city. Their value increased from $20 to $75-80 per ton over the decade from 1866. In 1913 it was reported that the principle markets for Tagua nuts were London, Hamburg, Le Havre and New York. From there they were distributed to factories in southern Germany, Italy, London, and Birmingham. In 1920 approximately 20% of buttons used in the USA were of vegetable ivory.
The nuts were dried from 3-6 weeks then the hard shells removed in revolving drums. They were then cut into slabs, soaked to prevent cracking, then turned on lathes into button blanks. They were drilled, shaped and polished. Although the whiteness of the nut yellows in air, it may be dyed and polished. For example, sulphuric acid turns the nut to magenta. Other chemicals, such as potassium iodate and mercury chloride could be used.
The buttons continued to be favoured for suits and coats until World War 2, when they became unavailable, and plastic started to take over. It remains in use, but only in small quantities, which is a shame, as it is a sustainable option.