Even before federation, there were “protectionist” versus “free-trade” views on promoting the Australian manufacturing industry. Post Federation, the subject of raising or lowering tariffs on goods such as buttons would arise repeatedly over the years.
The Great War caused many disruptions, including to manufacturing, with some goods and materials becoming unavailable, and some factory’s outputs completely turning over to the requirements of war. In Germany, due to the lack of local supplies of brass, nickel and tin, 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 1st June 1935 in The Australian Women’s Weekly (Herculoid was a celluloid product made by DuPonts).
Published in the News (Adelaide), 17th August 1940.
From around 1908, dairy producers started exporting casein to America, then England, for the manufacture of casein. According to “An insight into Plastics” by BTR Nylex Ltd., the plastics industry started in Australia around 1917, with buttons moulded 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 technological developments 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, separate 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, which was cheaper and less flammable than cellulose nitrate, was used to make buttons in Australia by companies such as Leda in the 1950’s. It was sometimes trademarked as ‘Permaloid’.
According to ‘An Insight Into Plastics’ by BTR Nylex Ltd, in 1917 buttons were moulded 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 between 1940-44.
Casein, a.k.a. Galalith (literal meaning ‘milk-stone’) 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 (being) manufactured in Australia.” However, this is incorrect, as the Herrman’s were producing casein buttons in the 1920’s (see the General Plastics page). In 1935, at the North Coast National Exhibition, casein buttons , products of Norco, were displayed. In the collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, is a casein formaldehyde button made in 1944 by General Plastics. They claim it to be “one of the earliest… to be manufactured in New South Wales.” This again is mistaken as explained in a 1945 a newspaper article; “For many years, Australian factories have been making buttons from casein plastic; one enterprise alone makes 45 million buttons.”
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, Lismore, 5 July 1934). 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. People working in a wide range of employment, including button manufacturing , were not free to change employment without a permit. 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. One local maker of these were Grant Featherston with his beautiful glass buttons. Another producer was Marie Gardner.
Marie Gardner, 1899-1971, began studying pottery at Sydney Technical College in 1938. In 1947 she set up a small pottery studio in her backyard in Harbord, Sydney, and produced vases, lamps, wall pockets, cruets and other decorative pieces.
The buttons were very successful during and after WW2, filling the void left by European buttons that could not be imported at that time. There were around 12 different moulds with many colour and finish variations.
Another producer was Austrian born Anna Louise Alma who had moved to Sydney.
Other artists produced ceramic studio buttons (i.e. in small quantities for a short period as artistic items). One such artist was Stanislav (Stacha) Halpern. He was born in Poland and fled to Melbourne in 1939. He was a painter, potter, printmaker and sculptor. The buttons below are courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts.
A.C.I. Plastics Pty Ltd., Booker St, Spotswood and Spencer St, Melbourne:
This was a subsidiary of Australian Consolidated Industries established in 1939. The company exists today as ACI Plastics, Inc. It supplied black and khaki plastic buttons for the military between 1940 to 1953.
A. Favell Pty.Ltd., Melbourne:
This Melbourne company produced buttons for the military between 1933 to 1940.
Australian Buttons and Buckles Pty. Ltd., Sydney:
This company existed from 1936 until 1951, when they went into receivership. They produced “Jiffy” recoverable button molds. There was also the “Jiffy de Lux” in gold or silver, which showed a ring of metal around the outside of the covered button. They also made casein buttons, but I am unaware of their branding.
Cashall Pty. Ltd., Melbourne:
This private company was incorporated in December 1933 and continues today. It was previously known as Cashall Button Co. and also Cashall Manufacturing Co. They were located at 114 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, then later at 8 Sydney Street, Collingwood. The company was involved in button manufacturing, plastic molding and casein production.
The company is presumably the one referred to in the article below from 1937.
They started out manufacturing things a little larger than buttons, like the charcoal gas producer below.
Cooper & Cooke, Glenhuntley, 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.
Cushioned Heels Limited, Carlton:
In 1938 Sandals Pty. Ltd. converted to a public company and changed their name. As expected with a name like that, this company produced moulded heels for shoes. They operated at 15 Macarthur place, Carlton until 1951.
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.
F.H. Edwards, Melbourne:
This was a plastic manufacturer that produced buttons for the military during WW2. In 1937-8 they were located at 460A Queen Street, opposite the Queen Victoria Market. Later they were located at 52 Lyndhurst Street, Richmond, until at least 1955.
H. Arendsen & Sons Pty. Ltd., Melbourne:
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 would later join 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., Sydney:
Hooper and Harrison were operating from Sydney from 1889. They produced NSW tramways 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.
Moulded Products (Australasia) Pty.Ltd. Melbourne:
In 1927 in North Melbourne John W. Derham formed the Australian Moulding Corporation. This Company produced ‘Saxon’ and “Harlequin” ware. To survive the Great Depression, in 1932 the company merged with Moulded Products (a company started in 1931 producing gramphone records) to become Moulded Products (Australasia) Pty. Ltd. Dunlop Perdiau had a controlling interest in this firm from 1934 until 1937. During the war required the company was obliged to produce only military requirements, including plastic and vegetable ivory buttons.
The company became the largest producer of moulded plastic products in Australia. In 1944 a new factory was built in Mentone. New products, such as garden hoses were made. In 1966 the company was renamed Nylex Pty Ltd. The factory employed many people at the Mentone factory until its closure in 2006.
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.
Raynors Pty. Ltd., NSW:
Raynors were (?are) engravers who expanded into die-casting and general metal engineering. They operated from at least 1932 until 1977.
Sheridan’s, Perth, West Australia:
Sheridans Badges is a family firm started in 1913 in Perth by Victorian born Charles Sheridan. 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 buttons below are backmarked “Sheridan Perth”.