Pearl Button Makers by John Houghton

The Mother-of-pearl which is cut into buttons is of various kinds, and some of great value. The white-edged Maccassar shells are fished almost entirely from the seas round Maccassar, 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 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 a less delicate in tint and clearness, are found inthe Black shell is from the archipelago of the Pacific ocean, this is a beautiful coloured shell and polishes to a very dark shade, but giving out all the colours of the rainbow with exquisite blends.

The least valued pearl shells are the Panama variety been of a size akin to oyster's,these only allow a small percentage the shell to be used commercially this was the main reason for there low tonnage price.

Most of the button trade was carried out in small family run concerns , which was a cottage industry in the premises were they lived. The outlay required to carry out these tasks was a small nominal expense, labour was the main criteria many hands working for small wages.

There were no idle hands every one had a job to perform in dirty squalid conditions, from sorting the shells, then the experienced man of the house would work out the best cuts from the shells, for the blanks, these would be collected for the driller to put the holes in the blanks, next the polishing and sorting in to sizes and quality ready for the carders to sew the finished buttons on to the cardboard ready for the sale. usually this would be the owner of a large button making business.

Mr John Bitthel manufacturer of pearl buttons a family concern that had been going on for decades. They lived at No 15 Parliament street' he had a small factory in the yard of court five, which consisted of two buildings for making of pearl buttons. This had been a mystery to us for years. We had moved in to 1/15 Parliament Street during the Second World War. at this time the only remains of this pearl making trade was one lean to building and the remains of the main building, this was mainly now at ground level with numerous boxes shells and pearl button blanks. Which we used to dig up for friends and the girls from Burlington street school.

I came across this information about the Bitthel family during my family history research when looking up the 1901 census and then covering the 1881 and 1851 censuses they had been in the pearl button trade over this time span more research is required if I want any more information. been in the pearl button trade over this time span more research is required if I want any more information.

So after all these years we now know the reason for our treasure trove of pearl shells and buttons in our old back yard of 1/15 Parliament Street aston. told

I am June Ivy Houghton nee chapman worked at clewleys in Vyse street in the centre of the jewellery quarter is there any body out there who worked with me use contact to get in touch.

contributed by Roger Keight
Birmingham was long known as 'Toymaker of the World', 'toys' being things of fashion such as buckles, buttons, snuff boxes, etc., and by 1759 about 20,000 people were involved in the manufacture of 'toys', with 8,000 of them working in the buckle trade. Then in the 1700's buckles began to go out of fashion to be replaced by metal-buttons. For many years a man named John Taylor made a fortune from gilding metal buttons at his factory, first in crooked Lane off Dale End, and then in Union Street, leaving a private residence in Bordesley, extensive landed estates in Yardley, Sheldon and coleshill, and a fortune of about £200,000 in his Will when he died in 1775. It is interesting to note that this same John Taylor teamed up with a Sampson Lloyd II to form Birmingham's first Bank, Taylor's & Lloyds, now trading as Lloyds T.S.B.

In 1749 another well-known man was taken into partnership in a flourishing Birmingham button making business. This man expanded the business to include all sorts of plated goods, silver, and jewellery, and eventually set-up the Soho Manufactory on Hockley Brook in Handsworth. When he died in 1809 he left £150,000 in his Will. His name was Matthew Boulton
Between 1770 and 1800, twenty-one patents were granted for improvements in the fastening of clothes, nineteen of them originating in Birmingham. During this time it was calculated that each operation was so simple that one button would pass through fifty pairs of hands, and each pair of hands would shift up to 1,000 buttons a day. Even children of 6 or 8 could do many of the jobs and could earn from 10d. To 8/- a week.

Initially buttons were covered with a thin layer of gold leaf, or were plated in a similar way with silver but towards the end of the century a method had been found to dip the buttons which covered the buttons with a minimum layer of precious metal and so was cheaper. However gilt metal buttons were dependant on whims of fashion just as buckles had been before them, and the fashions changed again at the beginning of the Victorian period. Some metal button producers continued to manufacture their products for uniforms and fancy wear, but others changed to the production of brass, jet, ivory, tortoiseshell, pearl, bone, horn, and glass buttons, many of which were then covered with cloth, silk, linen, and also buttons made from 'corezo Nuts' from central america. These 'Nuts' were a beautiful white colour, rather like ivory, and they could be easily turned on a lathe and then be dyed in numerous shades.

The button trade Parliament had banned the import of pearl buttons at around the end of the 18th century and Birmingham had become an ideal place for pearl button manufacture. The material, which was generally obtained from mother-of-pearl, abalone, and good Mollusc shells, was very fragile and so it had to be carefully worked by hand. For this reason the more robust 'Yellow-lip' Oyster shell from the west coast of australia was greatly preferred whenever it was available. Because of the fragile disposition of the material the pearl button industry was only to be found in small workshops and these were manned by highly skilled workshop craftsmen and were run by small masters.

Yet other materials started to be used for buttons. It was not unusual to find yards at the back of button manufacturers full of hoof and horn imported from overseas, the whole lot heaving with maggots and smelling vile, and steam would exude from the doorways carrying the same foul smell. Button manufacturers operating at this time included William Dowler & Sons Ltd (1774) of 11-15 Brearley Street, Firmin & Sons (1677) of Newtown Row, and W. Elliott & Son in Regent Street.

By 1865 machines were beginning to be introduced into the button trade and so only about 6,000 people worked in the various branches of the button trade compared with about 17,000 in 1830, and many of these people were women. Even with machines it still took about 14 girls and women working with incredible rapidity to put together a single button. These buttons were then attached to a piece of card, fourteen buttons on each, and one girl was capable of sewing 3,600 buttons onto cards in one day. Each card was sold at 1d or 11/2d each. Pearl buttons however, because of their frailty, continued to be made entirely by highly skilled craftsmen who made up one third of the 6,000 employed in the whole button trade, and who could earn between £2 and £4 a week compared with the 7/- to 9/- a week that the women were earning.

Then, because of increased competition from abroad a group of leading button manufacturers got together in 1908 to form Buttons Ltd, in exactly the same way and for the same reasons that gun manufacturers had formed the B.S.a... Buttons Ltd. operated from two factories, one in Portland Street, aston, and a smaller one in Warstone Lane in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham.

employed many people, particularly in the factories where a division of labour was necessary to cover the various processes. However, there was one type of button which could not be produced in this way and that was the pearl button.

FIRMIN & SONS, Newtown Row, Birmingham 6. (est.1677)
WILLIaM DOWLER & SONS Ltd., 11-15 Brearley Street, Birmingham 19. (est.1774)
BUTTONS LTD., Portland Street, aston (est.1908), and Warstone Lane, Birmingham 18.
GEORGE HOOK & SONS, Villa Street, Lozells, aston.
T.a.caRLYLE, Warstone Lane, Birmingham 18
MaTTHEW BOULTON, Soho Manufactory, Handsworth, aston.
JOHN TaYLOR, crooked Lane (off Dale End)


Buttons.—The earliest record of button-making we have is dated 1689, but Mr. Baddeley (inventor of the oval chuck), who retired from business about 1739, is the earliest local manufacturer we read of as doing largely in the trade, though sixty or seventy years ago there were four or five times as many in the business as at present, blue coats and gilt buttons being in fashion. By an act passed in the 4th of William and Mary foreign buttons made of hair were forbidden to be imported. By another act, in the 8th of Queen anne it was decreed that "any tailor or other person convicted of making, covering, selling, using, or setting on to a garment any buttons covered with cloth, or other stuff of which garments are made, shall forfeit five pounds for every dozen of such buttons, or in proportion for any lesser quantity;" by an act of the seventh of George the First, "any wearer of such unlawful buttons is liable to the penalty of forty shillings per dozen, and in proportion for any lesser quantity."

Several cases are on record in which tradesmen have been heavily fined under these; strange laws, and before they were repealed it is related by Dr. Doran (in 1855) that one individual not only got out of paying for a suit of clothes because of the illegality of the tailor in using covered buttons, but actually sued the unfortunate "snip" for the informer's share of the penalties, the funniest part of the tale being that the judge who decided the case, the barrister who pleaded the statute, and the client who gained the clothes he ought to have paid for, were all of them buttoned contrary to law.

These acts were originally enforced to protect the many thousands who at the time were employed in making buttons of silk, thread, &c., by hand, and not, as is generally supposed, in favour of the metal button manufacturers, though on april 4, 1791, Thomas Gem, the solicitor to the committee for the protection of the button trade, advertised a reward for any information against the wearers of the unlawful covered buttons. The "gilt button days" of Birmingham was a time of rare prosperity, and dire was the distress when, like the old buckles, the fashion of wearing the gilt on the blue went out. Deputations to royalty had no effect in staying the change, and thousands were thrown on the parish. It was sought to revive the old style in 1850, when a deputation of button makers solicited Prince albert to patronise the metallic buttons for gentlemen's coats, but Fashion's fiat was not to be gainsaid. John Taylor, High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1756, is said to have sent out about £800 worth of buttons per week. Papier maché buttons came in with Henry clay's patent in 1778. He also made buttons of slate.

Boulton, of Soho, was the first to bring out steel buttons with facets, and it is said that for some of superior design he received as much as 140 guineas per gross. Horn buttons, though more correctly speaking they should have been called "hoof" buttons, were a great trade at one time, selling in 1801 as low as 5-1/2d. Per gross. "Maltese buttons" (glass beads mounted in metal) were, in 1812, made here in large quantities, as were also the "Bath metal drilled shank button" of which 20,000 gross per week were sent out, and a fancy cut white metal button, in making which 40 to 50 firms were engaged, each employing 20 to 40 hands, but the whole trade in these specialities was lost in consequence of a few men being enticed to or imprisoned in France, and there establishing a rival manufacture. Flexible shanks were patented in 1825 by B. Sanders. Fancy silk buttons, with worked figured tops, were patented by Wm. Elliott, in 1837. Porcelain buttons, though not made here, were designed and patented by a Birmingham man, R. Prosser, in 1841. The three-fold linen button was the invention of Humphrey Jeffries, in 1841, and patented by John aston. In 1864 so great was the demand for these articles that one firm is said to have used up 63,000 yards of cloth and 34 tons of metal in making them.

cadbury and Green's "very" button is an improvement on these. Vegetable ivory, the product of a tree growing in central america and known as the corozo palm, was brought into the button trade about 1857. The shells used in the manufacture of pearl buttons are brought from many parts of the world, the principal places being the East Indies, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the islands of the Pacific Ocean, Panama, and the coasts of central america, australia, New Zealand, &c. The prices of "shell" vary very much, some not being worth more than £20 per ton, while as high as £160 to £170 has been paid for some few choice samples brought from Macassar, a seaport in India. The average import of shell is about 1,000 tons per year, and the value about £30,000.—There are 265 button manufacturers in Birmingham, of whom 152 make pearl buttons, 26 glass, 8 horn and bone, 14 ivory, 12 gilt metal, 3 wood, and 5 linen, the other 45 being of a mixed or general character, silver, brass, steel, wood, and papier maché, being all, more or less, used. Nearly 6,000 hands are employed in the trade, of whom about 1,700 are in the pearl line, though that branch is not so prosperous as it was a few years back.

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