The Birmingham Button Trade
by John P Turner

BEFORE the closing years of the reign of Elizabeth, we find no trace of button making being an established trade, employing any important number of people. Buttons, in fact, are considered by Jos. Strutt, in his erudite work on the “Habits of the English,” to have been used down to that time almost solely for ornament. He says:—

“In the paintings of the 14th and succeeding centuries these ornaments frequently appear on the garments of both sexes, but in a variety of instances they are drawn without the button-holes, and placed in such situations as preclude the idea of their usefulness. Generally speaking, they were made of gold or silver, or are so depicted with very few exceptions. There is no reason to believe that the making of buttons was considered a business until near the 17th century, when the makers of the article formed a very considerable body. Their whole trade seems to have been confined to the making of buttons worked with the needle.
“In the fourth year of William and Mary, a new Act was made in favour of the button-makers, which prohibited the importation of all foreign buttons made with hair. This again was followed by another six years afterwards, imposing a penalty of 40s. for every dozen of covered buttons sold or set in garments, it having been represented to Parliament that many thousands of men, women, and children, within this kingdom, did depend upon the making of silk, mohair, gimp, and thread-buttons with the needle, and that great numbers of throwsters, spinners, winders, and others, were employed in preparing the material for such buttons.”

Whatever may have been the results of the Acts just referred to, buttons seem to have maintained a progressive ascendancy during the reigns that followed that of William III., and became at times an extravagance, as in a comedy of the period, quoted by Fairholt, wherein an imitation of French foppery is thus satirized:—

“Next, then, the slouching sleeve, and our large button,
And now our coats, flank broad, like shoulder-mutton;
Faced with fine colours—scarlet, green, and sky,
With sleeves so large, they’ll give us wings to fly
Next year I hope they’ll cover nails and all,
And every button like a tennis ball.”

Probably, soon after the reign of George III. began, the fashion, which our forefathers can well remember, for the wearing of cloth coats, with extensive gilt buttons, commenced. In St. James’ Chronicle of 1763 a writer, in describing the display of tradesmen aping their betters, speaks of “the myriads of gold buttons, and loops, high garteres {sic}, shoes, overgrown hats,” &c., &c.; and in speaking of a certain smith, with whom he came in contact, says he had “a coat loaded with innumerable gilt buttons.”
At the end of the last century the fashion for gentlemen was for “an exceedingly long tail-coat, having very large buttons; tight buckskin breeches, buttoned at the knee, and tied with bunches of ribbons;” and when gaiters were added, those were buttoned all down, and this fashion continued, with some variations, until about twenty-five years ago, and included what may be called the Augustan age of button-making in Birmingham.

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