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History of Attempted Local Pearlshell Button Industry and Tariffs:
As early as the 1880s there were several small scale attempts to start pearl stud and button factories in Sydney, but a lack of experienced workers was a problem. These attempts lasted up to several years, but were small scale.
Around 1906, with the shelling industry suffering the effects of depletion in the shallower waters of Torres Straits, the calls for a local processing industry started. Places suggested included Sydney, Brisbane, Broome, Darwin and Perth. Unfortunately, many proponents of the idea were writers, scientists, or parties with vested interests such as pearlers, unions and local polititians, not economists or experienced button factory owners. The proponents claimed things such as ” the factory would be a great success, for … the Commonwealth would be able to manufacture at a far less cost (than those) who have to first import their shell.” It was also claimed that the plant was “not at all expensive”, and pointed to places such as New Caledonia where such a factory existed. Whilst the plant, in the pre-automated days, may have been inexpensive, it would still have required some expense to import it, and to train staff. There was also the fact that labour costs were relatively low in places where the industry prospered. For example, In centres such as Britain and America, where the industry was successful, workers’ advocates complained that workers, including women and children worked long, lowly paid hours in the button factories.
Tellingly, the proponents always suggested, or demanded, or pleaded, that the Government should subsidy the setting up of such a factory, overlooking the fact that if it were likely to be profitable, private industry would do so.
Post war, the industry was suggested as a means to provide employment to injured soldiers, who could “also receive buttons to mount on cards at home .. at his leisure.” A Government grant from the Repatriation scheme could be used to start this.
The Great Depression caused a ‘National Emergency’ to be declared in 1929. To try to protect local industry, import tariffs were raised. The following year, further taxes were imposed on ‘luxury items’, which included buttons. A series of inquires into altering tariffs started in August that year. In September they considered buttons, buckles, claps and slides. O. C. Rheuben, of the Herrman Company, claimed the change proposed would cover ¢150,000 of the £500,00 worth of these articles being imported in 1930 duty free. He claimed that in consequence he could increase his employees up from 22 part time, to 120 workers. The changes to the relevant tariffs were approved. A year later the firm’s output had increased by 400%, and a German engineer was coming out to oversee the installation of new machinery.
In 1929 two or four (depending on the report) Viennese experts came to Australia to help start the ‘Australian Pearlbutton Manufacturing Co. Ltd.’ This started production on the 1st May 1931 with 24 hands. This enterprise by Burns Philip was apparently encouraged by the Federal Government. By 1931 it was employing 40 people and by 1932, eighty people. However, the tariff protecting the industry was claimed to be effectively 1100%. The Sydney Chamber of Commerce estimated this would cost approximately £25,000 annually to the Sydney shirt and pyjama makers, the main consumers of pearl-shell buttons. They said the industry was “ill-conceived” with claims that 500 people could be employed “ridiculous”. At that time most shell buttons consumed there were made in Japan from Australian trochus shell, so that to stop importing Japanese buttons in favour of locally made would cause loss to the shell exporters. They were also concerned about the possibility of retaliation by Japan in reducing importation of produce such as Australian wool.
In 1932 a Northern Territory politician insisted that a “properly protected” industry could supply 80% of the world’s finished product. An opposing politician claimed that he was told “a German came to Australia with a proposition to make buttons. A company (Burns Philp) fell for it and financed him. His backers were now trying to use the tariff to recover their losses.” Although this was possibly just gossip, it is true that by despite a 15-25% tariff on pearl-shell buttons, by 1938 the Pearlshell Company was in liquidation, losing £28.000 per year. It would be merged with the successful enterprise, G. Herring Pty Ltd. being run by the Ney brothers, Marshall and Cornelius.
By 1935 there were apparently 3 pearl-shell factories in Sydney, PearlButton Manufacturing Co, G. Herring, and Pearl Products Manufacturing Company, one employing only four people. Herrman & Co were possibly who were referred to in a statement by a shell expert: “some years ago a company was formed in Sydney to manufacture buttons. The quality was excellent but the costs of production uncompetitive … recently it turned its attention to manufacturing composition buttons.”
As early as 1909 a newspaper reported the production of “mock pearl buttons” made from milk. The plastic industry had been growing before WW2, and was now booming. It was reported in 1951 that MOP exports had steadily earned less since 1948 (1948: £558,000 1951: £198,000). Due to low production and high prices since the war synthetic button manufacturers in the US had captured the market. Despite that, on the 8th March ‘Pearl Shell Industries Pty. Ltd’ was formed at Smith’s Creek, near Cairns, primarily to make buttons. A. G. R. Griffths, managing director of General plastics, was one of the directors. Fully automatic plant had been ordered from New York costing many thousands of pounds. General Plastics was to perform the rumbling and chemical polishing, as well as the sale and distribution of the buttons.
In September 1953, a MOP manufacturing plant, with a foreman and 9 operatives, was being advertised for sale as a going concern with profits of £40-60 per week. Apparently the space was required for extensions by the seller. It didn’t state who the company was or where they were located.
In November of 1953 the Cairns factory had reportedly more equipment on the way from Germany. 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. Despite this, local unionists were still “demanding” a shell processing factory to provided employment and cheaper articles!
In 1953 and 1954 two companies set up shell button factories in Fiji under Government protection. Despite this, the local industry was dead by 1959, due to competion from Japanese manufacturers and from synthetic buttons.