Pearl shell button industry

For more information, please see http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/australias-pearling-industry .

The  Australian pearling industry started in the 1850’s at Shark Bay,  West Australia,  and in Torres Straits in 1868.  Sixteen firms were operating from Thursday Island by 1877,   and  nearly 400 luggers plus more than 3500 people  fishing for shell in the waters off Broome by 1910.  In 1890,  the Torres Strait was supplying over half the world’s demand for  pearl shell.  The  shell was sold in large quantities to England and America  for the manufacture of button and buckles.  It was worth anywhere between 79 to 400 pounds a ton.  This created a boom time for the pearling areas with large numbers of European,  Asian,  Islander,  Koorie and Chinese people arriving to work in the industry.  This in turn had a terrible effect on local islander populations with up to a  50% reduction in population from 1870 to 1900.

Parsons, Thompson, and Co,  Sydney:

Here’s a nice little story from the Sydney Morning Herald, 10th February, 1881

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The firm was later renamed as Messrs. Thompson & Co. and traded in Victoria as well.

Jewish Herald, 26th April 1889.

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Jewish Herald, 26th April 1889.

The  story below,  published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 12th March 1886,  tells of another early pearl button manufacturer in Sydney.  However, there was no major industry established,  as was bemoaned by some who felt it was a shame that this opportunity wasn’t taken.

Early pearl industry

Another early manufacturer was John Ward, late from Birmingham,  who traded in Brisbane from at least 1884 to May 1889.

The Telegraph, 11th October 1884.

The Telegraph, 11th October 1884.

The telegraph, 13th May 1889

The Telegraph, 13th May 1889.

The  history of the industry relied on exploitation.   At Shark Bay,  aboriginal people worked without wages to collect shell.  Later they were required to dive without equipment into deep waters for shell.  The working conditions were very poor and dangerous.  Once diving suits were invented, divers,  often  Japanese indentured workers,  were required to spend hours at a time under water with danger from shark attack,  poor weather and the ‘bends’.  The mortality rate may have been as high as 50% for divers.

Later ,  the ‘White Australia Policy’ restricted the immigration of cheap and ‘expendable’ divers. Due to the  deaths  of  nearly all the 12 British navy divers brought in to work in the industry,  Broome was made an exception to the ‘White Australia’ policy.  The industry flourished until WW1 caused the market for pearl-shell to crash.  The industry would slowly rebuild post war.

article pubilshed in the Examiner (Launceston, Tasmania) 25th May 1903 describes how 'coloured divers' were essential to maximise profits.

This article published in the Examiner (Launceston,  Tasmania)
25th May 1903 describes how  ‘coloured divers’  were essential to maximise profits.

Good advice in The Queenslander, 7th October 1923.

Good advice in The Queenslander, 7th October 1923.

A typical article calling for more support of button manufacturing within Australia. Published in The Daily News on 16th June 1926

A typical article calling for more support of button manufacturing within Australia.
Published in The Daily News on 16th June 1926

 The establishment of a pearl button industry here was hampered by a lack of local expertise.  In 1929 four Viennese experts came to Australia to start the Australian Pearlbutton Co. Ltd.  By 1931 it was employing 40 people and by 1932, eighty people. The company was listed as in liquidation in 1938, then bought/merged into G.Herring (Aust.) Pty. Ltd.

Published in the Newcastle Morning Herald, 13th June 1931

Published in the Newcastle Morning Herald, 13th June 1931. The following article describes the manufacturing process.

Published in the Daily Mercury, 9th June 1931.

Published in the Daily Mercury, 9th June 1931.

Published in the Macleay Chronicle (NSW) 1st July 1931

Published in the Macleay Chronicle (NSW) 1st July 1931.

published in the Northern Argus (Clare,SA) 21st February 1936

Published in the Northern Argus (Clare, SA) 21st February 1936.

The industry almost stopped during both world wars due to workers enlisting.  During WW2,  the  (mainly)  Japanese divers were imprisoned when Japan entered the war.  Despite the hopes of politicians,  previous over-harvesting,  as well as high production costs,  slowed recovery of the industry after the war.  Then during the 1950’s plastic buttons and buckles largely replaced those made of pearl shell.  A new pearling industry would evolve based on cultured pearl with pearl-shell as a side-line,  the opposite to that previously where pearls were the side-line.

Published The Advertiser 8th November 1944

Published The Advertiser 8th November 1944

photo from 1945 of Trochus shells (copyright National Archives)

photo from 1945 of Trochus shells (copyright National Archives)

However, in March 1952 a new company was formed in Cairns to deal in pearls,  mother-of-pearl and trochus shells,  plastics and to manufacture buttons,  fancy goods and jewellery.  One of the directors was Mr. A.G.R. Griffiths.  As general manager and chairman of General Plastics this allowed the arrangement of all marketing of the new companies buttons by General Plastics. Plant and machinery were to be imported from America with credit from General Plastics.  On the 1st May 1952,  Mr Griffiths unexpectedly died.  However, by 1954 the company was established on the Cairns waterfront,  with machines for trepannation,  sorting,  grinding,  shaping and drilling.  The buttons were sent south (? to General Plastics) for chemical polishing and rumbling. Unfortunately, the era of pearl-shell buttons was over, and the business went into liquidation in 1954.  It survived with another owner only until around 1956.

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Published 8th March 1952,  Daily Mercury (Queensland). 

Brisbane Telegraph, 5th August 1954.

Brisbane Telegraph, 5th August 1954.

These appear to be dyed pearl buttons. They may date from the late 1800's/early 1900's when multiple small buttons were the fashion on ladies clothes.

These appear to be dyed pearl buttons.  They may date from the late 1800’s/early 1900’s when multiple small buttons were the fashion on ladies clothes.  The birds are Superb Blue Wrens,  prevalent in Eastern/South Eastern Australia.

From Lois's collection.

From Lois’s collection.

'Packed and finished in Australia'

Modern example.  ‘Packed and finished in Australia’

A collection of modern and vintage pearl-shell buttons, showing how the shell could be carved and dyed, as well as combined with other materials (here, glass and plastic). Real MOP buttons are still in production, but for the most part have been replaced by cheaper, more wash resistant pearl-like plastic.

A collection of modern and vintage pearl-shell buttons,  showing how the shell could be carved and dyed,  as well as combined with other materials (here, glass and plastic).  Real MOP buttons are still in production,  but for the most part have been replaced by cheaper,  more wash resistant pearl-like plastic like the examples here from Woolworths and Embassy.