The Birmingham Button Trade part 9

With regard to the button trade in Germany, unfortunately it has not been in my power to obtain particulars of an equally trustworthy character witch those respecting the trade in France, but its importance cannot well be overrated. If we except the porcelain buttons, the quantity exported from Germany to other countries must far exceed that from both England and France together, although in value the comparison might per haps be the other way, as the Germans vied in cheapness, especially in the production of fancy goods, where some taste is required in the imitation of more expensive articles. Besides almost exclusively supplying their own regions of the Zollverein, they are by far the largest producers for the middle and lower classes in such countries as Russia, Italy, Spain, and others, which buy almost all the buttons they consume. In England and France they divide with the native manufacturers the local requirements, and export enormously to the United States and other distant regions. When goods, however, are produced at almost unreasonably low prices, capital is not so quickly accumulated or fortunes made, and we do not hear of more than moderate wealth among the button makers of Germany even in the most favourable cases. Their manufactories are seldom on a large scale or their machinery very perfect, but they have a number of makeshift ways of producing sufficiently good results without involving much outlay.
The number of persons employed in the Elberfeld district must be greater than in Birmingham, but probably not so great as in France, and their earnings would no doubt be smaller than those obtained in either, probably about on a par with those in the country districts of France. In Bohemia, where all the glass buttons are made, they must be much lower still; yet it is not simply in the price of labour that the Germans have an advantage over manufacturers elsewhere. They may fairly claim the merit of exercising that kind of ingenuity in the highest degree whose aim is to produce the cheapest possible article with the best possible appearance, and in outstripping all rivals in this particular way they have also exhibited as much taste as circumstances would permit. This, however, applies almost exclusively to light fancy goods; in most plain and heavier articles, such as brace buttons, ivory buttons, and others again, where perfection of tools and workmanship is of first importance, as in bone buttons, the better kinds of uniform buttons, &c., they do not succeed so well. On the whole, we find them formidable rivals, and have as much to learn from them in one way as they from us in another.
My aim has been throughout this essay to give a popular and readable account of the button trade, without introducing technicalities, or even attempting any description of processes, and which would moreover involve details quite incomprehensible to general readers and which, however interesting to see, cannot be made so in description, those who wish to know more on such points may pay a visit to some of our workshops, and if they take a genuine interest in such matters, will readily find opportunities for gratifying their curiosity.

[Horn or Hoof buttons were made in Birmingham more than eighty years ago, and are referred to in a curious description of the Birmingham Manufactures in 1780 (which is prefixed to the “Birmingham Directory” of that date), and is valuable as a contemporary account:—“It would be no easy task to enumerate the infinite diversity of Buttons manufactured here: it may be sufficient to observe that those made of gold, silver, steel, pearl, paper, &c., are universally allowed to excel the produce of any other place in this kingdom; and are it must be admitted finished with all the richness and splendour of which they are capable ...

There is one sort of button which on account of its having been produced by an artist of eminence in this town deserves particular attention. It is that which is inlaid with divers other metals: was first attempted about 20 years ago: and then, though in no respect so complete as at present met with great and merited encouragement. Button making like many other arts was originally a very tedious and expensive process. The Button consisted of one solid piece of metal: and the ornaments upon the face of it were the work of an engraver. To give despatch to the execution of this manufacture and to render it more advantageous to the manufacturer, various instruments were invented, some of which were either solely produced or greatly improved by Birmingham artists. Among others the Press, and Stamp, and the Engine for turning the mould, deservedly ought to be mentioned. The first gives the form to the Button, and the second the objects represented thereupon: but the Engine, which was the invention of a man of great mechanical knowledge, was perhaps not the least acquisition of the three. An inconceivable despatch was introduced: and the formation of the mould was now effected with surprising ease and expedition: but what most enhanced the importance of the discovery was, that the bones and hoofs of beasts, which till this period had been thought articles of little or no value, became articles of great consequence in the manufacture of Buttons, and were imported into this kingdom in large quantities from Ireland and other places.”]—EDITOR.

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