Pearl shell button industry

The Australian pearling industry started in the 1850s 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, and later Japan, 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 Goulburn Herald and Chronicle, 14th February 1881.

 Mr Parsons was likely Charles Tilbury Parsons, who lived in Surry Hills at that time. He would leave Sydney for Gosford, and so the firm was renamed as Messrs. Thompson & Co.  He moved to Granville, however, he was only located there for some months, and later in the year he had moved back to Sydney. He must have continued for some years, as he was advertising his pearl shell studs and buttons in Melbourne in 1889.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 20th July 1881.

Cumberland Herald, 25th April, 1885.

Jewish Herald (Victoria), 26th April 1889.

From the MAAS collection:

“Pearls produced by an unknown manufacturer in Sydney c.1875-1885.”

“A metal tubular revolving saw attachment that is used to remove the button blanks from the pearl shell. The saw has a small, circular, serrated cutting edge, part of which has broken off. The circular serrated edge is attached to a tubular section fixed to a square block and screw.The saw revolves at a high speed cutting out button blanks. The saw’s diameter determines the diameter of the button blank.”

This could have been Thompson & Co (described above) ortMr Ackman, discussed below?

John Fagan, from London, appears in the newspapers as a sewing machine repairer in 1876 in Brisbane, before leaving for Sydney to run a engineering and tool making business until at least 1893. Perhaps he made some of the equipment used by Parsons, Thompson, and Co., who manufactured pearl buttons in Sydney from 1881, which would explain the involvement of his wife in this museum display.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 27th February 1886.

Mr. Ackman, Bennetts Chambers, Sydney: 

Mr Samuel Ackman (Ackmann) was a London born business man. He started as a storekeeper in Melbourne, was for a time a money lender in Ballarat, then moved to Sydney around 1875 to run an auctioneers firm ‘Harris and Ackmann’, amongst many other activities! Around 1879  (according to newspaper reports) he established a pearl button and stud factory. He died in 1922, aged 78 years.

Early pearl industry

Evening News,  12th March 1886.

Sydney Morning Herald, 2nd Aug 1886.

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

The Telegraph (Brisbane), 11th October 1884.

The Telegraph (Brisbane), 13th May 1889.

Historically the industry relied on exploitation.  At Shark Bay  aboriginal people were forced to work (even kidnapped or “blackbirded”) 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, who were 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.

After Federation, the ‘White Australia Policy’ restricted the immigration of cheap and ‘expendable’ divers. In 1912 12 British ex-navy divers brought out to work in the industry Broome. However, with the  death of one, the paralysis of another and a bad case of “the bends” in a third, all withdrew from the pearling fleet. Broome was made an exception to the ‘White Australia’ policy. Pearling flourished until WW1 caused the market for pearl-shell to crash. The industry would slowly rebuild post war.

Good advice in The Queenslander, 7th October 1923.

Good advice in The Queenslander, 7th October 1923.

Australian Pearlbutton Manufacturing Co. Ltd./G. Herring Pty. Ltd.

 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 help start the ‘Australian Pearlbutton Manufacturing Co. Ltd.’  at 16 Foster Street, Surry Hills, Sydney.It was also referred to just as ‘Pearlbutton Manufacturing Co.’

16-28 Foster Street, Surry Hills. The button factory did not occupy the whole building.

This enterprise by Burns Philip was encouraged by the Federal Government. By 1931 it was employing 40 people and by 1932, eighty people. In 1935 it was also listed at 297 Rae Street, N.Fitzroy, Melbourne. The company was listed as in liquidation in 1938, then bought and merged into ‘G.Herring (Aust.) Pty. Ltd.’

Import duties to protect the local pearl button industry were imposed, much to the dismay of clothing manufacturers, who claimed that “only pearl-shell buttons suitable for use in the finishing of high class goods” were being made locally, not the cheaper ones needed for “working shirts, cheap pyjamas, and similar goods”.

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.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 13th September 1935.

The Bulletin, 21st September, 1968.

The Daily Telegraph, 2nd June 1933. Articles from this exhibition are now part of the Powerhouse Museum’s collection shown below:

“Drilling pearl shell blanks.” ( Photo donated by Pearl Shell Manufacturing Co. in 1933 from Powerhouse Museum).

“Hand splitting pearl shell blanks.” Photo donated by Pearl Shell Manufacturing Co. in 1933 from Powerhouse Museum).

“This photograph depicts polishing buttons in revolving barrels.”

“This photograph depicts workers in a Sydney pearl button factory sewing buttons onto cards.”

The examples below of the Golden Lip pearl shell, (Pinctada maxima), were donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 1933.

“Australia’s pearling industry began with coastal-dwelling Indigenous people harvesting and trading in pearl shell. European settlers saw value in pearling and by 1877 there were 16 pearling firms operating on Thursday Island. Workers came from around Asia including Japan, Malaya and India. South Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Australians were also employed, many against their will. In the background of the photograph, against the distinctive seascape of the Torres Strait, four two-masted luggers can be seen. The boats were most often manned by a stern diver, one midships, and one diver off the bow. Divers wore bronze helmets, heavy canvas suits and lead-weighted boots. They breathed by way of a manual air compressor. Attacks of decompression sickness, ‘the bends,’ were common and deaths frequent.”

“The Golden Lip, (pinctada maxima) pearl shells, which could weigh as much as seven pounds, were sorted according to size and quality. At the time this photograph was acquired, the price of pearl shell was about 180 pounds per ton landed in Sydney.
Pearl shells obtained from the Torres Strait also found a ready market in the clothing industry in the United States and England especially for buttons and buckles. The Torres Strait supplied over half the world demand for pearl shell in the 1890s. In addition to buttons, pearl shell was used for cutlery, hair combs, jewellery, decorative objects and inlay for furniture.”

Published in the Daily Mercury, 9th June 1931.

Published in the Daily Mercury, 9th June 1933.

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

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

The Sydney Mail, 24th August 1932.

From: Fisheries Newsletter June 1946.

Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 18th September 1941. An order for the Department of Supply as described in the above article.

Pearl Products Manufacturing Co., Campsie

This company was registered on 16th January 1933 at 33 North Parade, but changed its name to Actex Hardware Co. and moved to Undercliffe on 20th February 1939.

Dun’s Gazette for NSW, 1933.

Dun’s Gazette for NSW, 1934

Dun’s Gazette for NSW, 1939.


Laurence Ryder Parkinson (1915-2008) was a manufacturer. His initial partners were Cyril Alleyne Hindson ( 1912-2004) and William Hosie, who both left the business by September the next year. They were replaced by Laurence’s father, George Dobson Parkinson (1885-1948), a builder, and Harold Moran. As the name change suggests, the company produced hardware, at first plastic then later metal as well, such and door handles. by 1967 they were known as Acetex-Goal. The company is deregistered.

The industry almost stopped during both world wars due to workers enlisting. During WW2,    Japanese divers were imprisoned when Japan entered the war. There were other pressures on the industry. As early as 1934, an overseas expert was warning that pearl prices were dropping due to reduced demand. Fresh water shell and  casein were in competition for use in button manufacturing.  Casein was considerably cheaper. In 1935 there were reportedly 3 factories in Sydney making pearl buttons and buckles. Despite the hopes of politicians and pearlers,  previous over-harvesting as well as high production costs slowed recovery of the industry after the war. There were issues with availability of divers: some wanted to reduce the use of ‘foreign’ divers, whilst others were claiming the industry was reliant on them. During the 1950s 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 historically where pearls were the side-line.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 4th August 1943. While the photos are not dated or located (and so may have been stock images), they were used to promote the idea of a post war pearl-button industry.

Published The Advertiser (Adelaide), 8th November 1944.

Pearl Shell Products, Sydney:

Malaby Chappell, Cleveland William Anderson (1917-2012) and Victor Marden (1920- ) formed a partnership under the name of ‘Pearl Shell Products’ in December 1946. By May 1947 Chappell had left, then in 1948 so had Marden.

Dun’s Gazette for NSW, 1947.

Government Gazette of NSW, August 1947.

Roland Clifford Latter (1919-2000) joined around 1948 and continued the business after Anderson left in October 1950.

Government Gazette of NSW, 1950

The article below comes from Fisheries Newsletter of March 1950, when Latter and Anderson were working together:

I can find no record of this firm after October 1950.

The Newcastle Sun, 10th April 1948.

Despite the changing times, in March 1952 a new company was formed in Cairns to deal in pearls, mother-of-pearl and trochus shells, plastics and also 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 company’s 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. None-the-less, by 1954 the company was established on the Cairns waterfront, with machines for trepannation, sorting, grinding, shaping and drilling. The buttons were sent south (probably 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.

Pacific Islands Monthly, 1st September 1958.

The Bulletin, 1959.

Fisheries newsletter 1960.

Above and below: Taken from an article about the re-emergence of the Trochus industry in ‘Australian Fisheries’,  November 1988.

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.

Dyed pearl buttons. The birds on the card 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’.

On top: 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.

Embassy branded pearl buttons from the 1950s.