The Birmingham Button Trade part 2
In these, our grandfathers
days, the business of button-making was comparatively much
more important than now, for other lines of industry have
enormously increased around us, while the button trade, from
various causes, can scarcely be said to maintain its ground.
||The fashions then in voguewhen, as
already stated, gentlemen wore gilt buttons on their coats,
vests, and leggingswhen for ladies even, and children,
metal buttons were often preferred to those from woven
materialswhen the varieties were fewer, and the
demand more steadywhen foreign competition, partly
through protective duties, and partly from the lack of
that development of the manufacture abroad which has since
so enormously progressedwere all in favour of our
Brummagem buttons, no wonder that the trade
flourished in a way it cannot be expected now to do. Times
have changed. The gentleman of Victorian England wears
the quietest possible buttons to his garments, and as
few of them as is consistent with decency and convenience.
All duties on buttons have been swept away under Robert
Peel. The foreigner enjoys here an open market, and, where
he can make cheaper and better, has in so far depressed
the home manufacture. No matter, so long as the nation
benefits, and the great principles of free trade are promoted.
All we hope is that other nations, in course of time,
may be equally liberal and wise, and thus make the whole
world a free market for all people.
At the period under review, a
large shipping trade in buttons was carried on to the Continent,
as well as the United States, in addition to the very ample
demands for the home trade. Easy fortunes were made, and many
local families grew into affluence, some of whose descendants
still maintain a respectable position among their fellow-townsmen.
Both employers and artisans were well off, for while the latter
was frequently enabled to earn his £2 to £4 per
week, the former was often obtaining his £2,000 to £3,000
a year a sum which, though small compared with the income
arising from some more important manufactures, was a large
amount to be derived from such an article as buttons, unless
in very exceptional cases.
Among the houses that took an important position in the trade
at that time, Messrs. Hammond, Turner, and Sons, Mr. Edward
Armfield, Messrs. Bullivant, Messrs. Sanders and Perkins,
and Mr. J. Aston, are still represented, and can date back
their origin to something more or less than a century ago.
All their early prosperity was owing to the metal button trade,
as was the case with several other good houses that have no
longer a name or successor to keep them in mind. It is not
often that a manufacturing business, in an article so subject
to the changes of fashion, continues to exist in vigour and
influence through a succession of generations, and the writer
of this may therefore be forgiven the boast, that his house
stands alone in having through four generations maintained
a leading ascendancy in the trade.*
||It may be interesting to trace the gradual
digression from the long-tail blue, or snuff-brown
coat with gilt buttons; and breeches be-buttoned at the
pockets and the knees, with leggings buttoned all down
to the ankle, to the present almost buttonless style of
garments. The first serious innovation seems to have been
made by the covered buttons introduced by Mr. B. Sanders,
who, after losing an easy fortune in Denmark, in the bombardment
of Copenhagen by Lord Nelson, came to this country hoping
to obtain at least a competence by commencing business
(at first in a very small way) in this town, little dreaming
that he was destined to make so rapid a fortune.
He introduced first a covered
button made of cloth or lasting, and with an iron shank. The
genius of his eldest son, Mr. B. Sanders, jun., improved this
into what is called the flexible shank button, that is, with
a tuft of canvass protruding through the back instead of a
shank, through which the needle could pass in any direction.
This button presents, moreover, a soft surface to the garment,
and was for both reasons a decided improvement. It was patented
in 1825, and being a beautifully made button, suited to a
growing taste in the direction of simplicity and plainness,
had an enormous sale. By this and a subsequent patent for
a similar button covered with silk on the back, the Messrs.
Sanders, now of Bromsgrove, made their name and money; while
those who had been reaping pleasant harvests from the gilt
and metal buttons hitherto in vogue, gradually ceded ground
to the producers of the covered and flexible buttons in their
various styles. Among the most notable of these was the fancy
silk button, with a centred pattern, which was patented by
Mr. William Elliott, in 1837. This also had a great run for
a few years, and redeemed the trade for a while from a commoner
class of button before in use. The patent, however, was hotly
disputed, and many imitations divided the profits derivable
from it. Nevertheless, so great was the sale, that as many
as sixty looms were at one time employed in London in making
the special material required; and Elliott was still successful
in securing a good fortune from its sale. This button led
to many others of a cognate character in silk twist, velvet,
&c., &c., and the liability of such to wear out on
the edge in buttoning suggested some mode of protection to
that part that should not interfere with the general symmetry
of the button. A very neat and ingenious mode of meeting this
difficulty was invented and patented shortly after by Mr.
John Chatwin, appropriately called the corded edge button.
All these fashions have passed away in this country, but abroad,
in France and Germany, a variety of styles of fancy silk buttons
have continued to be made and sold up to the present day.
||About 1841, another important
novelty in the trade was first brought out by Mr. John
Aston, who patented an invention of that versatile and
erratic genius, at that period well known in Birmingham,
Mr. Humphrey Jeffries, for the three fold linen
button; that is a button formed of a linen covering
and ring of metal so put together that both sides and
centre are completely covered with separate pieces of
linen, and thus produced quite fiat. This being an excessively
neat and convenient button was, and is, largely patronised
by house wives for all underclothing, having superseded
the old thread button of Dorsetshire, formed of a ring
of wire with threads drawn over and over it, and gathered
in the centre, which our grandmothers will remember to
have been their only resource for such purposes, and not
a bad one either.
*Among those to whom the Birmingham button manufacture was
particularly indebted in the last century may be mentioned:
Mr. Baddeley, the earliest manufacturer of whom anything is
known. He was the inventor of the oval chuck, and several
other appliances which greatly assisted in the improvement
of the manufacture. He lived in the Square, and retired from
business about 1739.
John Taylor, originally a cabinet-maker, but who held the
office of High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1756. An account
of his manufactory Is to be found in Huttons History
of Birmingham. He introduced a number of improvements
in gilt, plated, and lacquered buttons; the value of the weekly
produce of buttons alone at his works being at one time estimated
at not less than £800 a week.
Matthew Boulton, who as early as 1745 had introduced great
improvements in the manufacture of certain classes of buttons,
particularly inlaid and steel. After the establishment of
the Soho Works, the steel buttons cut with facets employed
one of the many departments of his manufactory, and were sold
at 140 guineas the gross.
Mr. Clay, the inventor of papier mache, who in 1778 took out
a patent for manufacturing buttons in this material. This
patent was afterwards extended, on the ground of his having
invented a new method of securing the shanks. He also manufactured
buttons of slate on a large scale.
Ralph Heaton, who established works for manufacturing button
shanks on an improved principle, in Slaney Street, shortly
before the commencement of the present century. EDITOR
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