The Birmingham Button Trade part 2

In these, our grandfathers’ days, the business of button-making was comparatively much more important than now, for other lines of industry have enormously increased around us, while the button trade, from various causes, can scarcely be said to maintain its ground.

The fashions then in vogue—when, as already stated, gentlemen wore gilt buttons on their coats, vests, and leggings—when for ladies even, and children, metal buttons were often preferred to those from woven materials—when the varieties were fewer, and the demand more steady—when foreign competition, partly through protective duties, and partly from the lack of that development of the manufacture abroad which has since so enormously progressed—were all in favour of our “Brummagem buttons,” no wonder that the trade flourished in a way it cannot be expected now to do. Times have changed. The gentleman of Victorian England wears the quietest possible buttons to his garments, and as few of them as is consistent with decency and convenience. All duties on buttons have been swept away under Robert Peel. The foreigner enjoys here an open market, and, where he can make cheaper and better, has in so far depressed the home manufacture. No matter, so long as the nation benefits, and the great principles of free trade are promoted. All we hope is that other nations, in course of time, may be equally liberal and wise, and thus make the whole world a free market for all people.

At the period under review, a large shipping trade in buttons was carried on to the Continent, as well as the United States, in addition to the very ample demands for the home trade. Easy fortunes were made, and many local families grew into affluence, some of whose descendants still maintain a respectable position among their fellow-townsmen. Both employers and artisans were well off, for while the latter was frequently enabled to earn his £2 to £4 per week, the former was often obtaining his £2,000 to £3,000 a year a sum which, though small compared with the income arising from some more important manufactures, was a large amount to be derived from such an article as buttons, unless in very exceptional cases.
Among the houses that took an important position in the trade at that time, Messrs. Hammond, Turner, and Sons, Mr. Edward Armfield, Messrs. Bullivant, Messrs. Sanders and Perkins, and Mr. J. Aston, are still represented, and can date back their origin to something more or less than a century ago. All their early prosperity was owing to the metal button trade, as was the case with several other good houses that have no longer a name or successor to keep them in mind. It is not often that a manufacturing business, in an article so subject to the changes of fashion, continues to exist in vigour and influence through a succession of generations, and the writer of this may therefore be forgiven the boast, that his house stands alone in having through four generations maintained a leading ascendancy in the trade.*

It may be interesting to trace the gradual digression from the “long-tail blue,” or snuff-brown coat with gilt buttons; and breeches be-buttoned at the pockets and the knees, with leggings buttoned all down to the ankle, to the present almost buttonless style of garments. The first serious innovation seems to have been made by the covered buttons introduced by Mr. B. Sanders, who, after losing an easy fortune in Denmark, in the bombardment of Copenhagen by Lord Nelson, came to this country hoping to obtain at least a competence by commencing business (at first in a very small way) in this town, little dreaming that he was destined to make so rapid a fortune.

He introduced first a covered button made of cloth or lasting, and with an iron shank. The genius of his eldest son, Mr. B. Sanders, jun., improved this into what is called the flexible shank button, that is, with a tuft of canvass protruding through the back instead of a shank, through which the needle could pass in any direction. This button presents, moreover, a soft surface to the garment, and was for both reasons a decided improvement. It was patented in 1825, and being a beautifully made button, suited to a growing taste in the direction of simplicity and plainness, had an enormous sale. By this and a subsequent patent for a similar button covered with silk on the back, the Messrs. Sanders, now of Bromsgrove, made their name and money; while those who had been reaping pleasant harvests from the gilt and metal buttons hitherto in vogue, gradually ceded ground to the producers of the covered and flexible buttons in their various styles. Among the most notable of these was the fancy silk button, with a centred pattern, which was patented by Mr. William Elliott, in 1837. This also had a great run for a few years, and redeemed the trade for a while from a commoner class of button before in use. The patent, however, was hotly disputed, and many imitations divided the profits derivable from it. Nevertheless, so great was the sale, that as many as sixty looms were at one time employed in London in making the special material required; and Elliott was still successful in securing a good fortune from its sale. This button led to many others of a cognate character in silk twist, velvet, &c., &c., and the liability of such to wear out on the edge in buttoning suggested some mode of protection to that part that should not interfere with the general symmetry of the button. A very neat and ingenious mode of meeting this difficulty was invented and patented shortly after by Mr. John Chatwin, appropriately called the “corded edge button.”
All these fashions have passed away in this country, but abroad, in France and Germany, a variety of styles of fancy silk buttons have continued to be made and sold up to the present day.

About 1841, another important novelty in the trade was first brought out by Mr. John Aston, who patented an invention of that versatile and erratic genius, at that period well known in Birmingham, Mr. Humphrey Jeffries, for the “three fold linen button;” that is a button formed of a linen covering and ring of metal so put together that both sides and centre are completely covered with separate pieces of linen, and thus produced quite fiat. This being an excessively neat and convenient button was, and is, largely patronised by house wives for all underclothing, having superseded the old thread button of Dorsetshire, formed of a ring of wire with threads drawn over and over it, and gathered in the centre, which our grandmothers will remember to have been their only resource for such purposes, and not a bad one either.

*Among those to whom the Birmingham button manufacture was particularly indebted in the last century may be mentioned:—
Mr. Baddeley, the earliest manufacturer of whom anything is known. He was the inventor of the oval chuck, and several other appliances which greatly assisted in the improvement of the manufacture. He lived in the Square, and retired from business about 1739.
John Taylor, originally a cabinet-maker, but who held the office of High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1756. An account of his manufactory Is to be found in “Hutton’s History of Birmingham.” He introduced a number of improvements in gilt, plated, and lacquered buttons; the value of the weekly produce of buttons alone at his works being at one time estimated at not less than £800 a week.
Matthew Boulton, who as early as 1745 had introduced great improvements in the manufacture of certain classes of buttons, particularly inlaid and steel. After the establishment of the Soho Works, the steel buttons cut with facets employed one of the many departments of his manufactory, and were sold at 140 guineas the gross.
Mr. Clay, the inventor of papier mache, who in 1778 took out a patent for manufacturing buttons in this material. This patent was afterwards extended, on the ground of his having invented a new method of securing the shanks. He also manufactured buttons of slate on a large scale.
Ralph Heaton, who established works for manufacturing button shanks on an improved principle, in Slaney Street, shortly before the commencement of the present century.— EDITOR

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