1902 Encyclopedia > Button


BUTTON, from the French bouton, a small piece of metal or other material used to connect different parts of a garment together by means of a button-hole, and also used for ornamentation. These apparently insignificant articles have produced a great alteration in our style of dress, for without them it would have been impossible to have reduced the flowing robes of our forefathers into our present simple costume. By this process we have the picturesque, as far as garment are concerned, but have gained in compactness and utility. Indeed, the occupations of the present age could not be carried on in the togs and dresses of ancient times. The button manufacture did not assume any special form until towards the close of the reign of Elizabeth. In paintings, commencing with the 14th century, studs, or buttons appear as ornaments on the dresses of both sexes ;but they were ornaments merely, being drawn without button-holes, and placed where they could serve no practical purpose. They are in general represented as of good or ivory. At the commencement of the 17th century the trade had greatly increased but the making of buttons by the needle seems to have been the principal method.

Matthew Boulton, who became the senior partner in the afterwards celebrated firm of Boulton and Watt, as early as 1745, introduced great improvements in the manufacture of buttons, particularly inlaid and steel. When the Soho Works were established near Birmingham, one of the departments was occupied in making steel buttons with facets, that produced a hundred and forty guineas the gross. Gilt buttons came into fashion shortly after the accession of George III. A large shipping trade in buttons was then carried on with the Continent and America, and the workmen’s wages at Birmingham averaged from £2 to £4 per week. John Taylor, originally a cabinetmaker, appears to have had a principal hand in promoting improvements in this industry at that time, as far as glit, plated, and lacquered buttons are concerned. The value of those turned out weekly in his establishment is said to have been about £800. Ralph Heaton improved the making of shanks, a separate branch, shortly before the commencement of the present century.

The metal button trade was in a very flourishing condition, when, indirectly, Lord Nelson may be said to have been the means of overthrowing it. The late B. Sanders was in easy circumstances in Denmark when he was ruined by the bombardment of Copenhagen under our great naval commander. Sanders then came to Birmingham to seek such competence as energy and perseverance could afford. He started in the button manufacture, at first in all small way, introducing a covered button made of cloth or lasting, with an iron shank. His son, of the same name, invented a flexible shank button, that is, one with a tuft of canvas protruding from the back instead of a shank, through which the needle could pass in any direction. It was patented in 1825 and had an enormous sale. The Sanders took out another patent for a similar button covered with silk. A fancy silk button with a central ornament was patented by William Elliott in 1887, which had a great run, so much so that sixty looms were employed in London in making the special material required ;and Elliott secured a fortune, although his patent was contested and many imitations were started. But all kinds of buttons were found to wear on the edges, to remedy which John Chatwin patented a corded edge button. It is said that horn buttons were used as early 1801, but we find from old Birmingham directions that there were horn-button makers as far back as 1777. At the former period the commonest qualities were 5 _ d. per gross. Hutton in his History of Birmingham refers to "our grandmothers" wearing horn buttons nearly the size of a crown piece. The hoof or horn button is cut into form and dyed and pressed into beautiful designs. This great improvement, however, appears to have been effected by M. Emile Bassot of Paris, who introduced important changes resulting in material progress. The manufacture is still prosecuted in England, but it is of secondary importance.

The materials of which buttons are made are as various as their forms. Gold, silver, and other metals, glass, porcelain, horn, bone, India-rubber, mother-of-pearl, and other nacreous productions of shel-fish, (Footnote 598-1) various woods, vegetable ivory, &c., (Footnote 598-2) are employed ; and for covered buttons, lasting, brocade, twist, velvet, silk, mohair, &c. The Birmingham Directory for 1784 mentions paper buttons ; and, according to the same authority, a button was produced by "an artist of eminence," which was inlaid with divers other metals; it was first attempted about sixty years previously ;and then, "though in no respect so complete as at present, met with great and merited encouragement." Buttons have been often expensively jeweled, and the gold and silver are plain or ornamented, sometimes resembling drops in filigree-work. There was one in use in England about the middle of the last century

Such was the origin of the button industry in England, and other nations have not been behind. The Scientific American gives the following account of its commencement in the United States:--

"The first manufacturer of buttons in this country was Samuel Williston. While he was dragging along as a country storekeeper, -- his eyes having failed him while studying for the ministry, -- his wife bethought her that she could cover by hand the wooden buttons of the time, and thus earn an honest penny. From this the couple advanced in their ambition until they hand perfected machinery for covering buttons, the fist employed in this country. From this sprang an immense factory, and then until Samuel Williston made half the buttons of the world. His factories are still running at Easthampton, coining wealth for the proprietors… He is now (1871) between seventy and eighty years of age, is worth five of six millions, and has given four hundred thousand dollars to Easthampton for a seminary and for churches ; two hundred thousand dollars to South Hadley Female seminary; and two hundred thousand dollars to Amherst College, besides lesser gifts."

The factories of Samuel Williston & Co., above referred to at Easthampton, Massachusetts, were established about the year 1848, and give employment to about 250 operatives. The annual cost of the materials used is estimated at $75,000, and the value of the produce exceeds $200,000. The button manufacture is also carried on extensively in New York and Phildelphia, and at Waterburry (Conn.). Buttons are also imported extensively. There are five importers in New York (1876). Joel Hayden of Haydenville began to make flexible in the States in the year 1834.

Other countries have not been backward in this branch of industry. Bohemia, particularly at Prague and the neighbouring towns, is the great seat of the glass button manufacture, and great numbers are made in France. The porcelain button manufacture has been taken possession of by France, Minton and Co., the celebrated Staffordshire firm, who worked the invention of R. Prosser of Birmingfirm, who worked the invention of R. Prosser of Birmingham, having been driven out of the field by the good work, attended by greater cheapness, of the foreign makers. There is one factory at Milan, and great numbers of the cheaper kinds of buttons are made in the Rhenish provinces of Prussia. Vienna has suppressed the competition of English makers in some kinds of pearl buttons. Its operations in this branch are of a most extensive character, quite rivalling those of Birmingham.

"Button making," says the Birmingham Directory for 1777, "was originally a very tedious and expensive process. The button consisted of one solid piece of metal; and the ornaments upon the face of it were the work of an engraver. To obviate this, the press, stamp, and engine for turning the moulds were invented. This led to other improvements, the bones and hoofs of animals were introduced into the manufacture; by these various means the prices of buttons were reduced."

In the manufacture of covered buttons the sheet-iron is first scaled by the use of acids, and then cut proper shape and size by a machine. The neck or collect of the button is japanned after having been stamped and cut. The hollow between the neck and shell is filled in with brown paper or button board. When the parts are put together they are pressed, which brings them into shape and consolidates them.

It would be impossible in the space that could be devoted to the subject here, to describe in detail the various modes in which the numerous forms of buttons are manufactured, -- especially as it would require elaborate illustration. We must, therefore, confine ourselves to noticing some of the special and more recent patents, referring the reader to works where he can obtain such further information as he may require. In 1840 Joseph Parkes took out a patent for improvements in the manufacture of covered buttons made by dies and pressure, by the application of horn as a covering material. Harris’s patent for improvements in horn buttons and their dies was obtained in April 1841. This invention related to applying flexible shanks to horn buttons, a mode of ornamentation by inlaying the front surfaces, and also gilding or silvering their surfaces, and to a mode of constructing dies so as to facilitate the process of engraving, the die being also so formed that the horn or hoof employed could not be expressed outside the circumference of the button. Hugh Willoch’s patent, dated 5th May 1874, related to a button with a removable head to enable the shank to pass through the button hole. The head is hollow and is partly filled with cauntchouc. It is perforated to admit the shank top, a short transverse bar which, on being turned one-fourth round, falls into an internal groove in the material of the button head, and is retained in that position by the elasticity of the India-rubber. Empson and Palmer’s patent, dated 4th July 1874, refers to improvements in linen buttons, and is also applicable to buttons covered with other fabrics. They are composed of a front and back shell, with a bar formed across the face of a raised concentric circle from the back shell (which is all the metal that need be visible in the finished button) the shells permitting ample room for the covering fabrics to be gathered in and held between them. They are considered to resist the injury common to linen buttons during the processes of washing, mangling, and ironing. Taylor’s patent, of 13th July 1874, relates to polishing ivory, bone, and similar buttons in a revolving drum with revolving brushes inside. Harrison’s invention (8th September 1874) consists in arranging the piercing tools, so that the thread holes for the buttons are made in the pierced metal in front of the shaping and cutting out tools, and the metal around the groups of piercings is shaped or "domed," and cut out. The result is that at each descent of the compound tool there or more groups of the thread holes are pierced in the sheet metal, and three or more finished buttons are made. The piercings in the sheet metal made by the last descent of the compound tool form the thread holes of the buttons made by the next descent of the said compound tool. When the thread-holes of the button are made in a central depression, a shaping tool for making the said depression is placed between each piercing tool and cutting-out too. This invention is also applicable to the manufacture of washers, rings, links for chains, and other like articles from sheet-metal. The patent of G. F Champorez of Berlin, Prussia, relates to improvements in the manufacture of steel or iron and steel dies, and to certain contrivances for producing the same, the said dies being in depression or relief, with out recourse to the hitherto universally employed engraving tool. Cole’s patent (10th February 1875) relates to a composition for dress-fastenings generally, consisting of black composition of equal parts by weight of gas tar or tar varnish, whiting or chalk or clay, and lamp black or vegetable black. For a coloured composition transparent varnish, or the waste refuse of it, is substituted for gas tar or tar varnish, and a powdered pigment of the required colour is added. The materials should be thoroughly mixed and converted into a plastic, pasty mass, which is consolidated and hardened by rolling and drying. To give toughness short pieces of fibrous material may be introduced. The articles are shaped from the composition by stamping in stamps or presses, and then varnished and polished.

Messrs Green, Cadbury, & Richards, Birmingham manufacture a linen button called "Thevery Button" (Shakespeare), in addition to others of innumerable kinds, and studs for shirts, collars, and wristbands, not only of plan materials but of gold and silver and jeweled. They employ about 400 hands, and turn out weekly from 10,000 to 15,000 gross (12 dozen to the gross) of their linen buttons. The proprietors of this establishment take great interest in the welfare of their workpeople, and few of the adults have been in their employment less than from eight to eighteen years. There is a sick club in connection with the works, and a library containing at present about 1000 volumes. Fines are inflicted for certain irregularities; these, however, are not appropriated by the firm, but are expended, half in the purchase of books, and half as a contribution to the sick club.

The following is a comparative statement of the number of button manufacturies at the localities where these articles are principally made, taken from the Directories of 1875:-- London, 58; Birmingham, 161; Paris, 140 ; Berlin, 49 ;Hamburg, 5; Darmstadt, 3 ; Offenbach on the Maine, 3; Luberc, 2 ; Barmen (Prussia), 27; Elberfeld, 9; Breslau, 2; Lüdenschied (Westmphalia), 14; Stuttgart, 6; Vienna-metal, 15 ; porcelain, 5; shirt, 6; silk, 11; Brussels, 5; New York city, 19; Brooklyn (N. Y.), 3; Philadelphia, 13; Waterbury (Conn.), 8 ; Boston (Mass.), 3; Attleborough (Mass.), 3 Springfield), 2; Newark (N. Jersey), 4.

Abstracts of Specifications of Patents (Patent office); Ure’s Dictionary of Arts and Manufactures; Resources, Products, &c., of Birmingham and Midland Hardware District; Strutt’s Habits of the English; Newton’s London Journal; Birmingham Directories, 1777, &c. ; Hutton’s History of Birmingham; Great Industries of the United States. (J. J. L.)


598-1 The shells are brought from various parts of world, and vary considerably in price. The white in price. The white-edged Macassar are the best; the yellow-edged Manila the next. Those from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea vary much in value, which depends upon the purposes to which they can be applied. Those from the Pacific are beautiful, but, being generally dark in colour, their value is much affected by the turns of fashion. The "Panama shells" are the least valuable, and are generally only used for inferior sorts of buttons.

598-2 Vegetable ivory is not very suitable for buttons ; it is too soft and the unavoidable waste in manufacture renders it expensive formed of polished brass and ruled with such fine lines that light was reflected in prismatic colours. Some buttons have fetched enormous prices, even when made of what is now a common material. Mother-of-pearl buttons have been sold at a guinea each. In 1790 Henry Clay of Birmingham patented a method of manufacturing buttons of slate of slit stone; and, in 1800, Joseph Barnett introduced a button with two shanks or other fastenings on one button.

The above article was written by John J. Lake, of Birmingham, England.

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