The Birmingham Button Trade part 4

Hitherto I have noticed only those various branches of the button trade which have been connected with special phases of its history during the last forty years, and which are themselves interesting and important, necessarily omitting such minor matters of a similar character as have been only partial or very transitory; but there remain still to be considered those staple branches of the trade, which through all changes have continued to be of major importance. These may be mainly classed under two heads, metal buttons and pearl buttons. Metal—for all uniform buttons, whether military, naval, or livery; for fancy buttons, gilt, plated, chased, enamelled, stamped, or pierced, &c.; for composite buttons, where they are partly made of other materials, as pearl, glass, wood, &c.; for parts or foundations of covered buttons, as flexible shank and linen buttons; for trouser buttons; for various kinds of cheap buttons, or japanned iron or tin, zincs, for slopsellers, military work, or export—must be an invariable “matiere premiere” in the manufacture of buttons. It is never used pure for the better class of work, but is always a compound of copper with brass or spelter in various proportions as may be required for different kinds and qualities of work ; thus we have the term “gilding metal,” that is, metal so compounded as to be suitable for gilding. The gilt buttons of our grand fathers’ days were of course gilt by the old process with quick-silver, which, for plain and solid articles of that character, was much more durable and satisfactory than the modern electro gilding process, which, however excellent it is for many articles, has been considered by the trade to have materially aided in driving out the old gilt button. The button that went out gilded by the new process soon turned coppery or tarnished. Public confidence was shaken, and the inferiority of the goods probably exercised a not unimportant influence in bringing on that depression in the old trade, which dates from about 1840.

Some years later the employers and artisans interested appointed a deputation to wait on Prince Albert, in order to induce him to promote the restoration of a dying fashion by himself wearing fancy gilt buttons. The rivalry of different firms for the fortunate honour of being the producers of such sets of buttons as should be selected by the Prince from the large assortment offered to his taste on that occasion, the urbanity of the Prince’s reception of them, and so forth, were intoxicating topics of gossip and speculation among the trade in my boyhood. But hope deferred maketh the heart sick. These sanguine gentle men all had gradually to learn that a Prince, however gracious, does not carry the fiats of the fickle goddess in his button-hole, and that the revolutions of fashion are to be met by measures more in accordance with sound judgment {sic}, good taste, and manly industry.

There are still many houses doing a fair amount of business in metal buttons. Hammond, Turner and Sons for best fancy uniform buttons and Smith and Wright for large quantities of military and other contract orders have the pre-eminence; but there are ten or twelve others here and in London who hold a respectable place in similar lines, besides a crowd of smaller manufacturers who provide the commoner goods, for the most part bought up by establishments such as the above.
The consumption of metals for buttons is not at all comparable with what it must have been twenty-five years ago. Still it is not inconsiderable; and though I have not been able to obtain approximate statistics on this point, I should think, however, that six or eight tons are used per week of metal, properly so called, that is the cruder article before referred to, whether for gilding or for commoner purposes, and as much more of iron and tin. My friend, Mr. J. S. Wright, who is perhaps better able to judge of this particular matter than myself, puts the amount down at half as much again, but neither of us have any means of judging very nearly.

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