The Penny Magazine Supplement on Birmingham

Published in 1844, this article goes into great detail about the manufacturing processes involved in making buttons: it starts with a description of 'Small work in Gold and Silver' (which I have included for general interest) before moving onto describe the work undertaken in Elliott's and Hammond & Turner's factories.



[Frontispiece illustration: Stamping, Pressing, and Punching Buttons.—Elliott's Factory]

It has been a sort of bye-word, that “Birmingham is the toy-shop of Europe.” This phrase seems to have sprung up about the time when cheap gilt jewellery became extensively manufactured in that town; a species of goods which well merits admiration, when considered in reference to the skill whereby such economical produce has been rendered attainable; but which has to a certain extent acquired a bad odour from being palmed off, by itinerant hawkers and unscrupulous dealers, as solid gold productions, or at least as possessed of excellences which are really attainable only at a much higher price. But modify the phrase as we may, it goes but little way in characterising the manufactures of Birmingham; since (it may be safely affirmed) there is scarcely a house in the kingdom in which there is not, at almost every hour in the day, some useful article or other employed of Birmingham manufacture. The useful and the ornamental have progressed by parallel steps; and the general arrangements of the town have advanced with them both. Mr. Hawkes Smith, in his account of Birmingham, has alluded to the latter point in the following terms:— “The mode of conducting business in Birmingham has suffered a complete revolution since about 1760, at which period manufactures had multiplied and increased. Previously to that period, the ‘Birmingham blacksmith’ had been accustomed, from time immemorial, to keep his station at home, where he was visited by ironmongers and other dealers, who resorted to this town twice in the year from all parts of the country, to make their purchases. This was obviously, to the community at large, the most expensive as well as the least eligible mode of effecting the desired purpose; and as the variety of manufactures rapidly augmented, it became almost impossible for the customer to wait on the numerous fabricators. This led first to the employment of agents, who made purchases for the country traders, taking a commission for their trouble. These agents afterwards grew into a separate trade, becoming home-merchants, or factors, as they are termed. These factors travel through every part of the country, collecting orders, which they execute on their own account; carrying with them specimens of the different articles, if practicable; or pictured representations, where too bulky or too numerous. Their portable show-rooms were long enclosed within the swollen receptacles of a pair of leathern saddle-bags, which were slung across a horse, and on which the traveller, or rider (as he was then technically called), took his seat. But now a tolerably complete set of patterns will weigh 5 cwt., and, with their exhibitor, forms a full and ample load for a one-horse carriage.”

The subdivision of trades at Birmingham is so apparently exhaustless [sic], that to examine a small portion of them is all that a writer or a visitor can effect. There are very few large factories, properly so called, in which an article goes through the entire range of manufacturing processes; but there is a vast number of workshops, more or less extensive, in each of which portions of the work are done. One manufactured article, which is sold retail for a penny, may go through twenty workshops before it is finished; some having forty or fifty workmen, some four or five, while some are simply the garrets of workmen who ply their trade by their own fire-side. With the exception of the metropolis, there is perhaps no town in England where there are so many persons combining in themselves the characters of master and workman, as Birmingham, and none in which there is more observable a chain of links connecting one with another.

The Supplement for October contained a general notice of the gold and silver plate manufacture, including the new art of electro-metallurgy. In this and the next following Supplements, we shall endeavour to group together a few brief notices of other departments of the town’s manufacture, such as may serve to give some idea of the variety which they exhibit.

Small work in Gold and Silver.
Whoever looks into the glittering window of a jeweller’s and silversmith’s shop, will see to what class of articles we here allude. The interminable forms and appearance of the pencil-cases, pen-holders, thimbles, bodkins, toothpicks, tweezers, brooches, finger-rings, ear-rings, chains, bracelets, buckles, clasps, &c., point to the existence of a large and important subdivision of trades at Birmingham. Some of these small trinkets are made of solid gold, some of silver, while some have only a thin superficial coating of one or other of these precious metals; but in any or all of these cases, the manufacturing arrangements are pretty much alike. There are warehouses, the proprietors of which form a medium between the small manufacturers and the buyers. They give out their small ingots of silver, or a given weight of gold in sheets, to workmen who, employed at their own homes perhaps, or working three or four for some intermediate master, perform a certain portion of the process of manufacture. A dozen different men or sets of men may be employed at the same time, in a dozen different places, in making certain parts of the same trinket, or some may succeed others in the order of processes; but all alike come at intervals to the warehouse, to render an account of the material they have used, to give in the trinket or part of a trinket which they have made, and to receive payment for their labour; and there are, in every particular branch, persons whose business it is to put together the various pieces of which the article may be made.

A jewellery or trinket-factory, properly so called, is perhaps hardly to be found in Birmingham, since almost every workman, and almost every small master, confines his attention to some one subdivision of processes. But if we were to follow the articles through the various workshops, we should find that the processes of manufacture are generally manipulative, or very little dependent on machinery. For pencil-cases, and other articles having a barrelled or cylindrical form, the sheet metal (silver or whatever else it may be) is tube-drawn into shape, something in the same manner as wire; and, by punching, stamping, turning, soldering, and other mechanical processes, is worked up into the finished state. If the barrel be figured or ornamented, as is generally the case, the device is given by passing the sheet-metal between two steel rollers figured with a similar ornament, before being drawn into a tube. In the ever-pointed pencils there are many little bits of apparatus to be made separately, such as the tapering point, the wire pusher, the screw, the reserve cell, &c.; but all this is small bench-work, in which lathes, vices, hammers, files, draw-plates, soldering apparatus, &c. are used, on a scale which renders it essentially a handicraft employment. Thimbles are brought to shape principally by means of stamps or punching-presses, so arranged as to bend up thin sheets of metal into the required form. If we were to extend our range throughout the list of trinkets and cheap jewellery, we should find that, in respect to the actual manufacture, such tools as we have mentioned, and such work as a man could carry on in a small room, are in most cases adequate to the object in view, and involve a system remarkable rather for the minuteness of its subdivision than for its unity as a whole.

A large part of the ingenuity of Birmingham has been displayed in finding means to give a golden surface at a small price. No other artisans can make a given weight of gold go so far in gilding trinkets as those of Birmingham; and it thus arises that cheapness of price has nowhere else reached to such an extraordinary extent. “All is not gold that glitters,” may be said of gilt jewellery generally; but it must in fairness be said, that the surface of these articles is really gold, for however thin the film may be, yet in the cheapest work it is continuous and unbroken, differing from the coating given to better work only in the degree of thinness—except indeed that some of the gold may be more or less “fine” than others. The substance of which the trinket is made may be copper or brass, or one of the numerous modern varieties of “white metal;” but all alike are susceptible of receiving a superficial coating of gold. The method of gilding is generally analogous to that which we shall presently speak of in respect of buttons; but the electro-process, described in our last Supplement, is becoming extensively applied to this purpose.

Buttons are among the most remarkable manufactures of Birmingham, and one of the few which are conducted on what may fittingly be termed the factory-system, since there are establishments in which some hundreds of persons (five or six hundred in one instance) are employed in one building, all making buttons. It is indeed surprising to see the extent to which so trifling an article influences manufactures, when once it has become a ruling item of fashion. When ‘florentine’ or ‘silk’ buttons, some few years ago, began to lessen the use of gilt buttons, the trade suffered somewhat of a shock; but things have adjusted themselves to the taste of the day, and the button-makers are now among the best-employed artisans of the town. Half a century ago Hutton spoke of the button-trade at Birmingham in the following quaint terms:— “This beautiful ornament appears with infinite variation; and though the original date is rather uncertain, yet we well remember the long coats of our grandfathers covered with half a gross of high-tops, and the cloaks of our grandmothers ornamented with a horn button nearly the size of a crown-piece, a watch, or John-apple, curiously wrought, as having passed through the Birmingham press. Though the common round button keeps in with the steady pace of the day, yet we sometimes see the oval, the square, the pea, and the pyramid flash into existence. In some branches of traffic the wearer calls loudly for new fashions; but in this the fashions tread upon each other and crowd upon the wearer. The consumption of this article is astonishing, and the value from threepence a gross to one hundred and forty guineas. There seem to be hidden treasures couched within this magic circle, known only to a few, who extract prodigious fortunes out of this useful toy, whilst a far greater number submit to the statute of bankruptcy. Trade is like a restive horse—can rarely be managed; for where one is carried to the end of a successful journey, many are thrown off by the way.” Buttons, it must be owned, are not now such splendid affairs as they were in Hutton’s time, but the trade has probably vastly increased in extent.

The materials of which buttons are made are very various, and this variety gives rise to a subdivision somewhat akin to that which we have already noticed, although not so marked. Besides the well-known gilt buttons, plain and figured, there are plated, silk, florentine, and other covered buttons, pearl, horn, shell, bone, wood, glass, and porcelain buttons, and probably many others. The two latter-named varieties are made at the works where either glass or porcelain articles are manufactured; but the rest are produced chiefly at Birmingham, the different manufacturers producing their respective varieties.

The establishments of Mr. Elliott and of Messrs. Hammond and Turner, two of those in which buttons are made to a vast amount, are among the most interesting in Birmingham. The former of these factories consists of a number of distinct buildings encompassing an open area or court, and each devoted to a particular kind of button-making, or a particular department of the general manufacture. The number of females to which the process gives employment is very large, and the nimbleness with which most of the processes are carried on by them is truly remarkable.

We may first select a common gilt button, and follow it through its processes of manufacture. The material of which these are made is sheet copper, or a mixed metal of which copper is a component part. From these sheets, “blanks” or circular pieces are cut out, a trifling degree larger than the intended size of the button. This is done by means of small presses, of which there is a very large number in various rooms of the factory, devoted to one or other of the different kinds of button. The press for cutting the “blanks” has a circular cutter or punch, worked by a lever or handle; and a female holding a sheet of metal in one hand and the lever of the press in the other, cuts the blanks with surprising rapidity, shifting the copper after each cut in order to expose a new part of the surface, and causing the punch to descend after each adjustment.

Whatever be the form or nature of the button, this preliminary punching of the blank is almost always observed; but beyond this, many varieties occur. The common flat gilt buttons for coats are flat on both sides, and consist of but one thickness of metal, which is punched out in the form of a blank. But there are many kinds of livery buttons, small globular buttons for boys’ dresses, and other kinds, which are convex on the outer surface; and this convexity has to be given to them after the blank is cut. Again, of those which are convex, some are of one thickness only, presenting at the back the concave side of the same piece of metal which is convex in front; while others (called “shell” buttons) are hollow, and made of two pieces of metal, one for the front and the other for the back. In this latter case, there are two blanks or circular pieces punched out separately, one called the “shell” and the other the “bottom.” The shell, as well as convex buttons generally, is pressed to a convex shape by a machine similar in principle to the punching-press, but having a curved polished surface to act upon the metal, instead of a punch. In this occupation, again, the celerity with which the workwomen [sic] stamp each of the little bits of copper consecutively is perfectly wonderful, twelve gross being frequently thus stamped in an hour by one female, or nearly thirty per minute! As each little blank, when made convex, remains in the die, the removal of it by the fingers would consume longer time than the actual stamping and the workwoman therefore adopts a dextrous [sic] mode of jerking out the finished piece in the very act of placing a new one, in the same way that a banker’s clerk does when weighing “light sovereigns,” but with far more tact and quickness. When it is considered that each little piece of metal is put into the die separately, stamped by a press moved with the hand, and removed from the die before another is placed, and that all this is repeated thirty times in a minute, the celerity with which the hand and fingers must move may be appreciated.

The blanks, as they come from the punching-press, have a kind of rawness of edge, which requires to be smoothed to fit them for their after appearance. This is done by turning each one slightly in a lathe to give regularity of surface. In order to bring the two parts of a “shell” button together, they are exposed to the action of a die and punch so peculiarly adjusted, that the edge of the “shell” becomes bent over and lapped down upon the “bottom,” securing the two together in a way at once firm and neat, without the employment of any solder, rivet, or other mode of fastening.

The body of the button, thus formed by any of these means, is frequently decorated on the surface with a device, such as the crest on a livery button, the device on a naval or military button, the few words which are generally stamped on the back of a button, &c. These are always produced after the general form is given to the button, and the dies necessary for this purpose comprise an important part of the stock of the manufacturer. These dies are made of steel, and have engraved on their surfaces the exact reverse of the device to be given. There is in almost all such cases a double pattern, one on the lower die, on which the button is placed, and one on the upper die, or “force,” which descends to give a powerful blow to the button. The presses used by the females, for punching and shaping the blanks of the buttons, have not power enough to stamp these devices; and the workmen therefore use a kind of stamping-press such as is here shown. The man places the button on the lower die [illustration], raises a heavy weight to the lower part of which the upper die is attached, and allows it to fall with great force, by which the button becomes indented with the device engraved on the die.

These processes of punching, pressing, and stamping are variously modified according to the kind of button about to be produced. For instance, a common brace-button has, as is well known, four small holes instead of a shank. The blank is first cut out; then the concavity is given to it by a separate punch or press, and the four holes are pierced by a sharp-pointed punch and these holes are afterwards “countersunk,” or rendered smooth at the edges to prevent cutting the thread, by applying each hole separately to a steel piercer.

The shank of a button is in some respects more remarkable even than the blank, partly on account of its manufacturing arrangements—strange as they will appear to most persons. It might well be supposed that in large factories where five or six hundred persons are employed in making buttons, the production of the bit of twisted wire which forms the shank would at least form one of the departments. Yet this is not the case: the button-makers are not shank-makers; the latter branch being carried on by a wholly distinct class of manufacturers, of whom there are three or four in Birmingham. The reason seems to be, that the machinery employed is so costly and intricate, and the value of each shank when made so extremely minute, that nothing less than making for a great many button-makers could pay for the maintenance of a regular establishment; so that the button-makers, as a body, can buy the shanks cheaper than make them.— Thus does the commerce of manufactures adjust and regulate itself when left to seek its natural channels. The shanks are made of brass wire, and vary from eight to forty gross per pound weight. In the beautiful machine now employed for their manufacture, a coil of wire is so placed that one end gradually advances towards a point where a pair of shears cuts off a short piece; a stud then presses against the middle of the piece, and forces it between the two jaws of a kind of vice in a staple-like form; the jaws then compress it so as to form the eye of the shank; a little hammer next strikes the end to make it level; and lastly, another movement enables the shank to drop into a box quite ready for use. It was said a few years ago that three firms in Birmingham make between them six hundred millions of button-shanks every year.

The blank or body of the buttons being ready to receive the shank, they are handed over to workwomen seated at small benches, who proceed to attach a shank to each button with astonishing rapidity. The button is placed down flat, with its back uppermost; the woman takes up a shank, and places it in the proper position on the button; she at the same time takes up a little piece of bent iron, capable of acting as a spring clasp, and clasps the shank tightly to the button; she next touches the foot of the shank, at the junction with the button, with a little solder [illustration]; and when many dozens or hundreds are thus adjusted, the whole are placed upon an iron plate, and exposed in an oven to a heat sufficient to melt the solder and unite the shank firmly to the button. This clasping of the shank to the button, singly and by hand, is one of the many processes in button-making partaking almost of the marvellous, for the celerity with which it is accomplished.

We have not professed to follow the exact order in which the processes are conducted, because this order varies somewhat according to the nature and quality of the button; but we have indicated most of those which actually take place, up to the time when the gilding or silvering is to be effected.

Many kinds of brace-buttons, livery buttons, and soldiers’ buttons, have a silvery white appearance, which is imparted to them in a simple but efficient manner. The buttons, after being thoroughly cleansed in an acid solution, are put into an earthen pan containing a dry or nearly dry mixture of silver, common salt, cream of tartar, and one or two other ingredients. The buttons are well worked up with this mixture by means of a brush, and in the course of a minute or two the whole of them are coated with a clear and equable surface of silver.

The gilding is a more elaborate process. The gilt buttons are, in the odd but concise language of the workmen, called “all-overs” or “tops,” according as they are gilt all over, or only on the outer, exposed surface. There is also a distinction between the “yellow” and the “orange” gilding, the former being affected in colour by the previous use of a mixture called “similor” (“gold-resembling,” as it seems to signify), made of zinc and mercury. We will therefore select an “orange all-over” and an “orange top” as examples of the processes adopted.

For the first of these the buttons, when properly cleaned, are put into an earthen pan, together with some “quick-water” and gold-amalgam, the chemical action of which on each other, and on the button, is very curious. The gold is neither a liquid nor a leaf, but is mixed up into a kind of paste with mercury: this paste, however, will not act upon the button unless a thin film of mercury be previously deposited on the surface; and to produce this deposition is the object of the “quick-water,” or “gilders’ aquafortis,” which is a solution of nitrate of mercury. The buttons, the quick-water, and the amalgam are worked up together in the pan by means of a brush; a chemical (or perhaps galvanic) action takes place between the copper of the button and the mercury of the quick-water, whereby a thin film of mercury becomes precipitated on the button; and in this state the button is prepared to receive a second thin film of the amalgam.

For gilding the “tops,” as the object is (for cheapness) to use gold only on the outer surfaces, the buttons are arranged side by side on boards having little holes to receive the shanks. Quick-water is brushed over the surfaces; and after this the amalgam paste is worked on them, to which it adheres only on the parts which have received the thin film of mercury from the quick-water.

In both these cases, then, we have the buttons coated with mercury and gold at their surfaces; and to get rid of this mercury is the object of the next process, one which has always been deemed very deleterious, but which is now conducted on a better plan than formerly. The buttons are put into the “gilding-cage,” an iron wire-gauze cylinder, nine or ten inches in diameter, provided with an iron door and a long handle. This is inserted in a cylindrical oven, so nearly closed as only to allow the handle to protrude through the front. The heat within soon causes the mercury to evaporate from the surface, and a very careful arrangement of flues is adopted, to carry off these fumes to separate condensing-chambers, where the mercury resumes its metallic form. A woman sits in front of the oven, and keeps the cage of buttons constantly rotating, by means of a winch-handle, to allow all the buttons to be equally acted on by the heat [illustration].

There are about this time other subsidiary arrangements for cleansing the surface of the button, heightening the colour of the gold, &c.; but these we may pass over, and proceed to notice the “burnishing.” [illustration] This process is effected at small lathes, provided with simple apparatus for retaining each button temporarily while it revolves; and a workman, with a burnisher of haematite, or blood-stone, burnishes the surface of each button brilliantly in the course of a very few seconds.

Let us next say a few words about florentine and silk buttons, the manufacture of which occupies a large and important department of the factory. It would be worth a penny to buy a coat-button for the purpose of dissecting it piecemeal, were it only to see how complex and ingenious are its arrangements. We should there find (in most specimens) two circular bits of iron, a piece of thick pasteboard, a piece of thick canvas, and the outer silk or florentine covering. All these are cut out by stamping or punching presses, such as we before had to notice. The sheet of iron, of paper, of canvas, or of florentine, is shifted gradually till it is nearly all cut up into little discs; and these operations give to many of the shops the same bustling and busy appearance which our frontispiece represents, nearly all this department of the work being carried on by females.

The mode in which all the pieces are fixed together is very remarkable. There is no glue or cement, no riveting, no sewing, plaiting, twisting, or other modes of fastening; all being adjusted and fixed simply by stamping or pressure. Within the outer cloth cover is an iron casing called the “shell,” within this is a disc of paper, then a disc of cloth, and at the back of all a disc of iron having a hole in the centre, through which some of the canvas is forced as a means for sewing the button on to the coat or garment. All these are placed, in their proper order, in a kind of die or cell, and a descending punch, worked by a press, first fixes the cover to the shell, and then these two to the other three bits, curling up the edges of the two discs of iron in such a peculiar way as to enable them to clasp all the five bits firmly, and to hide all raggedness and imperfections of edge. The internal mechanism of the presses, to effect this, is beautiful and ingenious.

Some of the silk buttons have the iron “shell” blacked with japan before being used; some are convex, while others are flat; some have a woven device in the centre of each, obtained by having the silk or other material wove expressly for the purpose, and by having each little disc marked out carefully by a separate apparatus to ensure accurate punching; some have braided edges, produced by an additional number of pieces, and an additional complication of the stamping process; and indeed there are numerous modifications of the covered button which it would be difficult to particularize here; but the punching out of separate little discs, and the fixing of these by stamping or pressure, are the prevailing features of the manufacture among all.

White linen buttons, of a remarkably neat appearance, are among the novelties of recent times. They consist of a tin or white metal ring, over which a disc of linen is stretched like the parchment of a tambourine; and the beautiful manner in which the two are fixed together by a single action of the press is very striking. The buttons made of bone, of horn, of wood, of mother-of-pearl, and of other materials, are generally the produce of other manufacturers, who work out their results by the aid of the circular saw, the lathe, the press, and a few other pieces of apparatus.

A finishing department of the factory is devoted to the papering and packing of the buttons, a matter in which almost as much neatness and dexterity are show as in the making of the buttons themselves. The buttons are sewn on to cards or papers, by girls, with astonishing rapidity; and these cards are packed in pasteboard boxes made with much elegance.

We may finish these few details by remarking, as an example of the vast amount of capital, of skill, and of persevering ingenuity involved in the invention of an article apparently so insignificant as these, that we were shown at this factory a new button, scarcely yet introduced for sale, on which several thousand pounds have been expended, and many months’ labour bestowed, before it could be brought to the desired perfection. It is a peculiar composite material, designed to combine the advantages of many others, such as hardness, lightness, strength, and a beautiful silkiness of appearance.


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