The outbreak of WW2 changed everything. Manufacturers went into overdrive to supply military needs. Civilian production changed as well. Materials such as casein and bakelite were in such demand that some became ‘declared commodities’ under government control. The plastic industry underwent rapid growth, which would forever change manufacturing. Whilst shortages created problems, there were also opportunities….
Published in the News (Adelaide), 17th August 1940.
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 and the export of casein powder 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 both problems and opportunities for many manufacturers.
After the war, things did not simply go back to the way they were. Supply shortages still existed. For example …
Commonwealth Government war factories were rented out to private enterprise. A newspaper article reported that in Hamilton, Victoria, E.W. Tilley were to produce plastic buttons in such a factory. (This company also operated from 123 Latrobe Street, Melbourne from 1942 onwards.) Confidence returned as the economy switched over to post war production.
In 1945 no thermo-setting ingredients were being made locally. By July 1950 C.S.R. Chemicals (Aust) Ltd. started local production of cellulose acetate. By 1953 Monsanto Chemicals (Aust) P/L started production of polystyrene in West Footscray. In 1959 local production also included phenol formaldehyde, melamine formaldehyde, urea formaldehyde and polyvinylchloride. In 1968 Nylex (formerly Moulded Products) started production of ABS plastic. These plastics were vital for many Australian manufacturing industries.
‘Statement’ buttons were popular after WW2 to decorate the otherwise austere style of clothing in vogue at the time. One local maker of these was Grant Featherston with his beautiful glass buttons (see separate page). 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 after WW2, as European buttons 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, print maker and sculptor. The buttons below are courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts.
Pearl shell buttons were declining in market share, while plastics were booming. In the 1950s there were at least 4 major Australian button manufacturers (possibly Beauclaire, Beutron, Leda, and Delphi) according to the following article…….
Published in The Sunday Herald (Sydney), 8th October 1950.
1950 saw the start of a concerted and long running campaign by local button firms to discourage the use of ‘inferior’ imported buttons. According to the local companies, Australian buttons were technologically advanced. They were boil proof, detergent proof, and dry-cleaning proof. They would not fade, melt or damage clothing. What’s more, the rotten Commies were making profits from selling us their glass buttons!
According to this article from 1954, Australia was producing 90% of the button used in the country, and 99% of the billions of buttons produced world-wide were by now made from plastic. “Even those frivolous diamente-centred jet buttons, those round pearl ones, those crystal glitterers, those mother of pearl ones, and those shining gold and silver filagree fancies that come on your fashion-right frocks aren’t what they seem. They’re plastic.”
Plaited Leather Buttons: 1950’s onwards
While undoubtedly leather buttons were used before this time ( see below article from 1917), they seem to become more popular after WW2 (borrowing perhaps from military uniforms) particularly on sports/tweed coats and jackets. A local industry sprang up to meet the demand. Many European and Jewish immigrants set up in the ‘rag trade’ at this time. Some would use outworkers to hand plait strips of leather into buttons in their homes that would be collected, dyed, varnished and carded to be sold to shops and tailors.
Published in the Advocate (Launceston), 5th August 1954. It appears Mr Grey started his business after WW1 (‘the last war’) and was quite successful. A bit of detective work has uncovered that (despite being reported as W.E. Grey) his name was actually William Maxwell Gray (so much for accuracy in journalism!) He was born near Kobe, Japan in 1889 and died in 1960 in Tasmania. His wife, demonstrating leather plaiting in the photo, was Helen Gray.
An example of plaited leather (or ‘football’) buttons can be seen below.
Barwon Button and Buckle Company Pty. Ltd:
In August 1939 this company commenced operating in Geelong. It was to “manufacture from Australian Casein articles which were previously made in Germany. A modern plant has been installed and is under the management of a skilled Continental technician. The establishment of the factory should be a benefit to the community…” By September they were making, and about to market “a large range of buttons, buckles and dress ornaments.” Forty machines had been installed. The company deregistered in July 1944.
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, producing uniform buttons. The company was wound up in 1950.
G.N. Raymond was a company producing casein sheets and prepared button blanks for button manufacturers in the 1950s.
J. G. Lloyd and Company Pty. Ltd:
On the back of these 2 button cards is printed “J.G.L. presentation”.
John George Lloyd, of Hungarian descent, fled from Austria to Australia in 1939 and established J. G. Lloyd and Company Pty. Ltd. the following year. The company operated at Goldie Place and Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in the 1940s, before moving to 94-106 Pelham Street, Carlton. They supplied buttons for the military from 1941-1957. They produced plastic buttons as well as vials, jars, toys, jewellery, hair ornaments, kitchenware, electrical fittings and hardware. The company was still around in 1965.
One of the company’s subsidiaries was Duranol Co. Pty. Ltd. (Lloyd was one of the directors). Buttons were produced under this name, as well as the plastic MacRobertson and Hoadley chocolate boxes you may find in vintage stores (see above). In 1965 Cope Allman (Australia) Ltd. acquired a majority share of Duranol Pty. Ltd., Modern Mouldings Pty. Ltd. and J. G. Lloyd Pty. Ltd.
Landico Pty. Ltd. (Coburg, Melbourne):
From 1949-1954 this “manufacturer of high class buttons” advertised for staff. They also sought salesmen in Gippsland, Western Victoria, Adelaide, Sydney and in Tasmania for their products. They registered designs for buttons (class 3) in 1955.
In 1951 they had a contract to supply brush holders to the military:
Olson Badges (Adelaide):
This company has been operating near Adelaide from 1966 as Allan J. Olson Pty. Ltd. making badges, medallions, name bars and uniform buttons. Allan Olson started as an apprentice in 1936 with S. Schlank & Co., working with them until 1965 then starting his own business. In 1971 he bought the former Schlank plant, equipment (including many old dies) and their factory located in Forrestville, South Australia.
Ornacraft Pty Ltd:
In 1939 this business was formed from the previously named Ornacraft Company. They registered button designs in 1947. This company operated from at least 1940 to 1950 at 60 King St, Newton, Sydney, as plastic button manufacturers. This building still stands as a apartment/business/hotel complex. A photo of the building and some employment adverts follow, from The Sydney Morning Herald. The company was deregistered in 1966.
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.
Rothfield & Co. Ltd/John Bowden Plastic Button Pty Ltd:
Rothfield & Co, South Yarra, was a manufacturer of sewing cottons and threads. In 1947 it became Rothfield &Co. Ltd to raise capital and extend business. It acquired or established several subsidiaries, including John Bowden Plastic Buttons Pty Ltd. In 1952 a fire destroyed £50,000 worth of cotton and £10,000 of machinery as well as a brick building occupied by the button subsidiary. The company merged with Peerless and changed its name to Peerless Holdings Limited in 1959. Rothfield’s Sewing Cottons (NSW) Pty. Ltd. was deregistered in 1968.
This is a reel of cotton produced by Rothfield, produced for military use during WW2. Penny at ‘Miss Foley’ has kindly shared photos of the boxes they came in. She’s at https://www.etsy.com/au/shop/MissFoleyVintage?ref=shopinfo_shophome_leftnav on Etsy. She was told the mill closed in the 1950 or 60s.