The Birmingham Button Trade part 5

Pearl buttons have always been an important branch of the trade, and, considering the delicacy and beauty of the material, a very interesting one. No elaborate machinery is employed in the production of these buttons, and perhaps never can be made profitably available for them. At any rate hitherto skilled hand labour, assisted by nothing but the foot-lathe, is alone employed, and therein this branch is distinguished from all others where steam power and machinery, more or less complicated, is generally used, but not so universally as in many other articles. The mother-of-pearl which is cut into buttons is of various kinds, and some of great value.

The white-edged Macassar shells are fished almost entirely from the seas round Macassar, in the East Indies. These shells, the “mothers” of the orient pearls so coveted by beauty, are the finest in size and the purest in grain of any in the world. Their value in this town varies from £140 to £160 per ton.
The yellow-edged Manilla shells are similar in size and character, but have a yellow tinge on their border, which diminishes their value, and, moreover, they are more brittle in turning. They are used chiefly in the Sheffield trade for knife handles; their value is from £100 to £120 per ton.
The Bombay and Alexandria shells, smaller in size and less delicate in tint and clearness, are found in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, very various in quality and usefulness, sometimes worth £70 to £80 per ton, at others not worth £30. Good and even indifferent shells of this class have latterly been scarce, inducing a suspicion that the fisheries are becoming exhausted.
Another very beautiful shell is brought from the Archipelago of the Pacific Ocean, and is called the black shell, because when polished it throws out a very dark shade, full, however, of beautiful rainbow tints, exquisitely blended. Portions of the shells, when properly turned, produce also white buttons, nearly as clear and good as those from the best Macassar shells. These buttons are not now much in demand, so that the shell does not bear its just value, which would otherwise rank next to the Manilla shells.
The last and poorest species of shell is also found in the Pacific, and chiefly in the neighbourhood of the pearl islands in the bay of Panama. These “Panama shells” are often not much larger than oyster shells, though then, of course, they bear but small value. When of fair size, they average from £20 to £30 per ton, and are used naturally for the poorer kinds of buttons.
It is said that 5s. is capital enough to begin making pearl buttons. This, however, is not quite true; but no doubt a few pounds will enable a respectable workman to commence on his own account, if so disposed. Hence there are a multitude of small makers in this trade, and very few establishments pretending to employ anything like fifty pairs of hands. As a rule, a few larger houses supply the material to these smaller masters, of whom there are above a hundred in the town, and take all they produce, thus practically becoming the real employers.
There are still probably about 2,000 pairs of hands engaged in pearl button making in Birmingham, and about two tons or more of the best shells, and probably some twenty tons more of the commoner kinds, are cut up weekly by them. Some five years ago, just previous to the American war, this industry was much more important than at present, probably employing half as many more individuals again, as now; but from the cessation of almost all export for the States in the intervening period, it has been very depressed, and is but beginning to revive with the renewal of the American demand, in the particular styles in which the Birmingham makers excel, they continue to engross what trade is going, but for a variety of fancy sorts in vest and dress buttons, the French workers have long maintained a pre-eminence; and for cheapness and quantity in particular kinds, the Vienna manufacturers defy our competition, and export very largely to neutral markets.
The following analysis of the importation of the various kinds of shell for five years since 1859, is kindly furnished us by Mr. J. S. Wright, and may prove interesting:—

In 1859
there were 1,800
tons, of the total value of £66,000

About one-quarter of this would probably be re-exported to the Continent or consumed in Sheffield, so that about three-quarters of the whole may be reckoned as consumed in Birmingham for buttons

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