The Birmingham Button Trade part 6

There are still other branches of the button trade worthy of notice, but to treat of all would be an endless and futile task. It were easy to write a long list of materials from which buttons have been made, but very difficult to name one from which they have NOT been made. Every possible kind of metal, from iron to gold, whether pure or mixed—every conceivable woven fabric, from canvas up to the finest satin and velvet—every natural production, capable of being turned, cut, or pressed, as wood, horn, hoof, pearl, bone, ivory, jet, ivory nuts, &c.—every manufactured material, of which the same may be said, as caoutchouc, leather, papier mache, glass, porcelain, &c.—have entered more or less into the manufacture of buttons, and some of them constantly.

Bone buttons have, from time immemorial, been manufactured for common purposes, and form almost the only branch in the trade in this country not peculiar to Birmingham, inasmuch as they are produced in many places, as well as here, where bone is plentiful and cheap, or where the manufacturer can procure it, as waste, from the making of larger articles.

Wood buttons, for great coats, jackets, &c., are also constantly in use, and are made usually from box wood, dyed black, or, for extra qualities, from the best hard woods, as ebony, cocoa, &c.

Glass buttons form a very interesting branch of the trade, whether in combination with metal or otherwise, as for best fancy styles, or whether plain or cut in various patterns, as imitations of jet. Though these buttons are many of them sold very cheaply, as low in fact as two-pence a gross, in plain small ball shapes, for children’s shoes, yet the processes they require are tedious, and in many of the best cut ones very few gross can be produced weekly by one pair of hands, so that larger numbers are employed compared with the quantities produced than in other branches.

Probably over 300 people are engaged in this branch alone; yet this is very much less than the numbers employed in Paris, and very far short of those engaged in a similar way in Bohemia, that great seat of glass manufacture generally, and whence are exported to all parts of the world innumerable thousands of grosses of cheap fancy glass buttons.
Porcelain buttons are not made in England at all, but were first invented by a Birmingham man, Mr. R. Prosser,* who patented the idea some twenty to twenty-five years since, and in connection with the celebrated North Staffordshire house of Minton and Co. made and sold them.

The French, however, took up the trade at an early period, and soon compelled Minton and Co. to abandon a hopeless competition, and, with the exception of some that are less well made in Aix-la-Chapelle, have continued to command all markets for them, and sell immense quantities. They have adapted and perfected so unequalled a method of making these buttons, that it may be safely said no article was ever made so well, so perfectly, and so cheaply. A great gross, that is 12 gross, each of 12 dozen, is sold for 11d., every button beautifully made, regularly carded on good paper, and admirably turned out in every respect. The very paper they are on would be thought worth the money.

* I find it stated in a well-known French periodical, Les Grand Usines, in an article on the manufactory of these very buttons, at Briare, that the invention is really very ancient, and that before 1706 the master button makers in porcelain formed a community; be this as it may have been, in France, the present mode of making them is certainly new.

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