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
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:
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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