Even before federation, there were “protectionist” versus “free-trade” views on promoting Australian industry. Therefore, the subject of raising or lowering tariffs on good such as buttons would arise repeatedly over the years.
The Great War caused many disruptions, including to fashion and button manufacturing. Due to the lack of local supplies of brass, nickel and tin in Germany all loose pins, hooks and eyes as well as metal buttons were confiscated for use in munition production. Only carded buttons and packets of pins and hooks could be sold. Although circumstances weren’t quite so extreme here, shortages still occurred.
On the 29th August 1934 this article was published in the Daily News (Perth) detailing the growth in the button manufacturing industry in Australia at that time.
Published 27th July 1935 in The Australian Women’s Weekly (Herculoid was a celluloid product made by DuPonts).
Published in the News (Adelaide) 17th August 1940.
According to “An insight into Plastics” by BTR Nylex Ltd., the plastics industry started in Australia around 1917, with buttons molded from imported phenol-formaldehyde powder being among the first products manufactured.
While shell, wood, glass and metal buttons were still common, plastic became more and more dominant. This was driven by the techonolgical developements and demands of World War 2.
As early as 1856 an early form of ‘celluloid’ was developed, although it was not until the 1890’s that celluloid buttons were produced. Many ‘pin-back’ buttons were produced and sold in Australia from circa 1900 on “Button Days” for fund-raising. Collecting these is a popular hobby, seperate from that of clothing buttons.
It could be a dangerous industry, due to the highly flammable nature of this plastic. Factory fires, some fatal, occurred both here and overseas. A later form, cellulose acetate, trademarked as ‘Permaloid’, was used to make buttons in Australia by Leda.
According to ‘An Insight Into Plastics’ by BTR Nylex Ltd, in 1917 buttons were molded from powdered phenol-formadehyde (e.g. Bakelite) imported into Australia. Moulded Plastics (Australasia) Pty. Ltd. made ‘Duperite’ products from 1932. These included buttons for the Australian Military Forces.
Casein, a.k.a. Galalith (literal meaning ‘milk-stone’; cute hey?) or ‘Erinoid’ was first presented in 1900. It was an inexpensive and more humane alternative to ivory, horn and bone products. Casein was favoured for button production because it wasn’t flammable like celluloid, and could be produced in many colours. It also polished up to a beautiful luster. Initially Australian made casein was mostly exported to markets such as Canada, the USA, England and Japan where it was made into many products including buttons, buckles, and combs. Many people bemoaned the fact that, just like with so much other Australian produce, it was exported only to be re-imported as value-added objects. A newspaper report from December 1929 stated that “no buttons were manufactured in Australia.” (This is probably wrong..see the story of B.Herrman on the general Plastics page.) In 1935, at the North Coast National Exhibition, casein buttons , products of Norco, were displayed. However, a casein formaldehyde button, made in 1944 by General Plastics, and part of the collection of the Powerhouse Museum is claimed to be ‘one of the earliest… to be manufactured in New South Wales.’ Yet … In 1945 a newspaper article claimed that ‘for many years, Australian factories have been making buttons from casein plastic; one enterprise alone makes 45 million buttons’. Perhaps the museum has it’s facts wrong?
Some controversy occurred when it was claimed that weevils had been eating English-made casein buttons. Mr Riddle, manager of Milk Industries, denied this; “I can set your mind at rest regarding the fears that beetles and mice eat into the buttons. This does not occur at all with casein buttons, but is a common complaint with vegetable ivory nut buttons. Casein buttons are not attacked by any pest, and will keep indefinitely unless they are immersed in water. This information will probably enable you to set the minds of yours friends at rest, and also to recommend them to use the casein button instead of the inferior imported ivory nut.” (Northern Star 5 July 1934)……Sounds like an info-merical. I’m not sure he was a disinterested party if the following article was true….
At various times during the 1930’s submissions were made to the Tariff Board about imposing duties onto imported casein sheets. Some wanted the local casein production to be encouraged and local button production increased. Others in the fashion industry were concerned that not enough colours could be made locally, and that the fashion industry would suffer if importation of casein was made more expensive.
WW2 saw an increased demand for casein for manufacture of uniform buttons, paint, adhesives and also in aircraft production. Therefore, it became a ‘declared commodity’ with the price under government control. The export of casein powder was banned. In 1947 local producers were asking for this ban to be lifted. The following article describes how the sudden demand created problems, and opportunities, for many manufacturers. Some of these manufacturers are outlined below.
‘Statement’ buttons were popular after WW2 to decorate the otherwise austere style of clothing in vogue at the time. Some examples of these were Grant Featherston’s glass buttons. Others were ceramic, and at least some were locally made.
A.C.I. PLASTICS Pty Ltd:
This was a subsidiary of Australian Consolidated Industries established in 1939 that exists today as ACI Plastics, Inc. It supplied black and khaki plastic buttons for the military between 1940 to 1953.
A. FAVELL Pty.Ltd:
This Melbourne company produced buttons for the military between 1933 to 1940.
AUSTRALIAN BUTTONS AND BUCKLES Pty. Ltd.: Sydney
Started in 1936. Under receivership in 1951.
CASHALL Pty. Ltd.: Melbourne
This private company was incorporated in December 1933 and continues today. It was known both as Cashall Button Co. and Cashall Manufacturing Co. at 114 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, then later at 8 Sydney Street, Collingwood. The company was involved in button manufacturing, plastic moulding and casein production.
It started out manufacturing things a little larger than buttons, like the charcol gas producer below.
COOPER & COOKE: Huntley, Melbourne
Cooper & Cooke ceramics, in Glenhuntly, Melbourne, set up in 1937 to make porcelain flowers, and later made jugs, vases, urns and dishes. During WW2 they made insulators, casseroles, coffee pots and buttons for the Army. The firm moved to Long Gully in Bendigo in 1976 and closed in 1996.
EMPIRE DIE & TOOL WORKS PTY. LTD: Sydney
This company was registered in 1940 as die makers, die sinkers, iron founders, and tool makers in Sydney, New South Wales. They operated from a garage and workshop in Cathedral Street, Woolloomooloo. Like many in manufacturing, they became involved in the war effort, and produced uniform buttons. The company was wound up in 1950.
This was a plastic manufacturer that produced buttons for the military during WW2.
H. ARENDSEN & SONS Pty. Ltd:
Henrik (Henry) Matthew Arendsen was born in Melbourne in 1914 after his parents immigrated from Holland in 1912. He was a die-sinker, and started his metalware company before 1938. His sons later joined the business. It appears to recently been re-named as Stormor Shelving, a tailoring trimmings and supply firm. They produced metal buttons, buckles and other goods for the military in WW2.
HOOPER AND HARRISON Pty. Ltd:
Hooper and Harrison were operating from Sydney from 1889. They produced NSW tramsways uniforms in 1912. Hooper and Harrison (Victoria) was registered in 1938 to take over the business of Hooper and Harrison Pty. Ltd., as wholesale suppliers of woollens and tailors trimmings in Flinders Lane, Melbourne. The company went into liquidation in 1942.
KITCHENER & Co. Ltd: Sydney
This was a naval and military outfitters in George St, then later Hunter St., Sydney. Later it was known as Sandhurst Kitchener & Co. Pty. Ltd. Produced uniforms for the military during both World Wars. It existed from at least 1915 until some times in the 1940’s-1950’s.
LAUGHTON LTD. (RAINSFORD) : Sydney
The parent company was the British company Stratton that started in 1860 producing knitting needles. It merged in 1920 with the companies Jarrett and Rainsford, makers of haberdashery and jewellery. In 1928 the company of “Jarrett, Rainsford and Laughton Ltd” established the subsidary Rainsford Ltd., later Rainsford Pty Ltd., in Sydney. Initially they were importers only, but later set up manufacturing as well. In February of 1935 a large fire in an adjoining building caused an estimated 25,000 pounds damage to stock.
This company also produced uniform buttons during WW2.
NALLY LTD: Sydney
In 1927 an electrical engineer, Herbert Anthony Marshall, started a company called Nally Products Limited that produced Plastic products including “Nally Ware”, plastic kitchenware made from phenol resin. The company was in liquidation in 1930 but re-born as Nally Limited and continued until bought out in 1990. They produced plastic buttons for the military in WW2.
NORCO (North Coast Co-operative) : New South Wales
In 1935 Norco purchased a casein factory at Lismore from S.M. Cottee and Sons. The main use in Australia at that stage was for glue used in the plywood industry. However, at an exhibition that year, Norco had displays of casein products, including “buttons of many attractive shapes and colours”. Later they would also include items such as buckles and dolls heads! Local people bemoaned the fact that overseas manufacturers were using Australian casein to make products to sell back to us, and that more should be made of the industry.
PERFECTION PLATE: Sydney
Another business whose primary business was not button manufacturing, but who produced uniform buttons during WW2. It was established by Silverbrite Electroplating Company in 1925. The company continues today as Perfection Plate Holdings, and includes Stokes Badges, the remaining part of the business started in 1853 by Thomas Stokes.
SHERIDAN’S: Perth, West Australia
Sheridans Badges is a family firm started in 1913 by Victorian born Charles Sheridan in Perth. The firm continues today. It had large contracts in both WW1 and WW2. See http://museum.wa.gov.au/research/research-areas/history/sheridans-badges and http://wanumismatica.org.au/medalists-badge-makers/sheridans for more on the history of this company. The button below is backmarked “Sheridan Perth”. (sold on Ebay)