The Birmingham Button Trade part 3

The linen button patented by Mr. John Aston was improved upon by Mr. Wm. Elliott, and the two working in concert made a very successful business of it until their mutual patents expired. The original article and various deviations from it are now made by a number of houses, and some idea of the importance of the manufacture may be formed from the fact that Messrs. Dam, Watts, and Manton (Mr. Elliott’s successors), consumed, last year, 1864, for this small article alone, 63,000 yards of cloth, and 34 tons of metal, for which nearly 250 hands were employed, an amount that would seem incredible on less trustworthy authority than that of the firm themselves.

The mention of covered buttons naturally led to some notice of the linen button, otherwise it would be more proper in point of time to refer to another very important revolution in the trade produced by what is called the “horn button,” but which should be more correctly termed the “hoof button;” this pretty, but excessively cheap article, so largely used in children’s and ladies’ dresses, being made from the hoof of cattle, cut into form, dyed, and pressed into beautiful designs. No doubt, some clumsy descriptions of this button were made from this material beyond the date of existing memories;* but their great improvement and development was first effected from twenty-five to thirty years ago, by Monsieur Emile Bassot, of Paris, a gentleman to whom the button trade, in France especially, owes many important changes and material progress. My own long intimacy with the gentleman, and a previous close connection and esteem on the part of my predecessors, particularly the late Mr. William Turner, enables me to bear confident testimony to his peculiar and special genius, and I feel most pleased to have this opportunity of paying a friendly tribute to his devoted intelligence in promoting “la boutonnerie.” He was elected a juror in the great Exhibitions of 1851 and 1855, and was regarded up to the time of his death, last year, as the first authority in button-making in Paris. This invention, originated by M. Bassot, was taken up with great spirit in our own town and neighbourhood. Mr. T. W. Ingram, and Mr. Thomas Cox, of Birmingham, and Mr. Thomas Harris, of Halesowen, may be specially named as having each and all borne a well-merited palm for the excellence, beauty, and variety of their productions in this material. For a good many years they enjoyed an unflagging and well-deserved support, and sent their productions to all parts of the world; but times have again changed—the demand for such buttons has either fallen off altogether or verged into varieties in which the French makers have exercised a successful competition, and they have secured by far the greater portion of what remains of the trade. Hoof button-making still lingers at Halesowen and Birmingham, but it serves only to remind us of “the days that are no more.”

A glance into any book on costume will often serve to raise a smile at the queer figures our ancestors made of themselves, and no doubt our own descendants will be equally amused at the chimney pots of our gentlemen, and the repulsive crinoline of our ladies. But be that as it may, these various changes involve new styles of buttons and buttoning, and when they are, as by chance sometimes happens, for the better, let us be thankful.

The introduction of jackets, in a variety of colours and materials, for men’s wear, in place of the old dress coat, or stiff surtout, has opened an opportunity for the adoption of a button suitable to them; something that could be made in various shades, and not of the same material as the coat itself. Thus arose a demand for the “Vegetable Ivory,” or “Corozo Nut” button, which are the most recent introduction the trade has seen. About ten years ago they were only known as a very occasional article, though the same material has long been to some extent in use for beads and ornaments of various kinds. Since that time they have become universally used, and are largely manufactured in Birmingham.

The nuts from which these buttons are made are imported from the countries of Central and the northern ports of South America, such as Carthagena and neighbouring ports. They grow in clusters on trees bearing something the character of the palm, but probably never so lofty or so large. Each cluster is enclosed in an outer case, as with chestnuts, and the whole bunch, thus enclosed, is about as large as the two clenched fists ; but as much of this is shell, and a further portion core, there is but a lesser half of actual material good for use. This, in a good nut, is of a beautiful milky white, something softer to the touch, and lighter in weight than ivory; it is readily turned in the lathe, and can be dyed in a variety of shades, as brown, drab, slate, grey, &c., &c., to suit the endless varieties of material that are used in the garments of to-day. In these articles too Birmingham maintains a pre-eminence, for though they are made both in France and Germany, their competition does not surpass us in neutral markets, and we are even sellers of them to some extent in theirs.

There are probably now, at busy moments, some fifteen or sixteen tons per week of these nuts, worth to the consumer from £25 to £30 per ton, cut up into buttons in Birmingham, and some 700 hands employed in their manufacture. The use of them has suggested the introduction of various composite materials by way of imitations, but only one is worthy of notice, that of Mr. J. S. Manton, who patented in 1860 a material made from mineral earth, which is very effective for some styles of buttons and jewellery, and for which the demand is rapidly increasing. The real vegetable ivory button, however, will always maintain its ground so long as fashion requires a button of that species.

*“Horn” buttons, as early as 1801, at least, were largely manufactured in Birmingham, the commonest qualities being sold at 5½d. per gross. Hutton speaks of the cloaks of our grandmothers, ornamented with a horn button nearly the size of a crown-piece, a watch, or a John-apple, curiously wrought, as having passed through the Birmingham press.

[A crown (worth five shillings, equivalent to 25p) was 32mm in diameter.]

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