25th October 2019


In 1919 the United States War Industries Board produced 50 bulletins about wartime prices in different industries. Apparently this was a useful endeavour! Concerning buttons, they looked at fresh water and ocean pearl, vegetable ivory, metal, bone, glass and shoe buttons. I’ll select some information from this to share:

Until 1890 (the year import tariffs were implemented) the country’s supplies had mainly been supplied by Austria-Hungary and Germany. Due to the effect of the tariffs, imports fell from a five year average of $11,500,000 to $100,000 in 1891.

In 1914 five states produced over 80% of the buttons manufactured in the USA. These were New York with 245 factories, Iowa with 81, New Jersey with 60, Pennsylvania with 24 and Connecticut with 18. The value of the entire output was over $20,000,000.

Fresh-water pearl buttons:

At the time of the printing of the bulletin, the fresh-water pearl button industry was the most significant in the country. In 1916 there were approximately 20,000 people working in the fisheries and factories. Perhaps a little naively, the fisheries commissioner had declared that “our fresh-water mussel resources will, with proper attention, endure indefinitely”. Shell varied from 1 to 2.5 cents a pound. A reduction in tariffs plus cheap labour had resulted in Japanese manufacturers  being able to compete with buttons made from fresh-water shells taken from inland lakes near Hankow and Tientsin in China.

Ocean-pearl buttons:

“Until 1886 Manila was the center of the ocean-pearl trade, but of recent years England and the English colonies have come into control, Queensland and Singapore furnishing the largest shipments.” From 1917 imports started to come directly from Australia instead of mostly from London. The value of imports that year were $1,183,680. Varieties imported included white shell from West Australia at 72 cents per pound, yellow shell from Manilla at 58 cents and black shell from Tahiti at 40 cents. These prices had fallen during the war as the large markets of Austrio-Hungry, Germany and France were inaccessible due to blockage of the ports. Japan was also using, at 13-15 cents per pound, Trochus, Takase and Awabi shell. Ocean pearl was used mostly for better grade clothing, whilst fresh-water for medium to cheap clothing. Severe competition with cheap Japanese product was noted, particularly for lower grade product.

Vegetable Ivory buttons:

The tagua nuts were imported for the most part from Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. Italian manufacturers were also using the lower quality Egyptian palma dum. Prior to the war, Hamburg was the principal market for tagua nuts and Italy, Austria-Hungry and Germany were large producers of these buttons. Italy had exported over $3,000,000 worth in 1913. During the war “no import licenses would be granted except upon condition that all waste should be turned over to the Gas Defense Service of the United States Army.” In America there were around 10,000 people employed, mainly in Rochester, N.Y. and Newark, N.J. Production had increased with soldiers’ flannel shirts using these buttons. In 1917 the Army used about 325,000 gross and in 1918 this increased to between 700,000 to 800,000 gross!

Metal Buttons:

These were mainly produced in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Buttons were made from locally sourced gold, silver, iron, copper, brass and aluminium, produced in sheets from which blanks were stamped. In 1917 about 750,000 shirt and 2000,000 overcoat buttons were used, rising to 1,000,000 and 300,000 respectively in 1918, as well as large orders of uniform buttons for foreign armies.

Bone buttons:

Pre-war, Germany and Belgium imported cattle shin bones from South America, wereas the USA sourced their own from packing houses. Three factories employing 600 people supplied nearly all their domestic bone buttons, mainly for underwear, waists (i.e. blouses) and children’s clothing. They were used by the Navy, but not the Army. Less than 1% of bone buttons were imported.

Glass Buttons:

“To mention glass buttons to the dealer is to bring to mind the factories and skilled workmen of the districts of Reichenburg and Gablonz . “The varied use of materials and the skillful blending of colors are trade secrets handed down from father to son, and often one design or particular type of button is the output of a single family.” … “These button makers are the northern Bohemians. There are more German Austrians among them than Czechs.”  Importers stocked up  in 1914-5 which meant supplies lasted until 1917. After that local demand increased by around 200 %. However, not all materials were available and stocks of certain imported colors became depleted. Only about 15 American factories existed.

Shoe buttons:

These were mostly made of papier-mache saturated with linseed oil or amber varnish and baked, and produced in New England. Agate buttons were imported. In 1914 15,500,000 gross were produced!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *