WHAT THERE IS IN A BUTTON
An extract from Household Words, a weekly journal, conducted by Charles Dickens
UPDATE, 2020: Louise Eckhart chided me, very gently, for attributing the writing of this article to Charles Dickens – my words above include ‘conducted’, so I should have known better and I apologise.
Louise pointed me to a quotation from “Literary Women, The Great Writers” by Ellen Moers, paperback edition published in 1977 by Anchor Books (page 126), which says “What There Is in a Button is the title of the article Harriet Martineau wrote for Household Words about the manufacture of metal, pearl, needle-wrought, engraved, and cloth-covered buttons as it was carried out in Birmingham in 1852. The article was part of a successful series on a variety of manufacturing processes that Dickens commissioned, for no one wrote that sort of thing more clearly and thoroughly than Harriet Martineau.”
Thank you, Louise.
Published Saturday, April 10, 1852.
Price 2d.[Reprinted in book form, this is part of Volume V, containing nos. 79 to 103 inclusive, (from September 27, 1851, to March 13, 1852.) The series’ title comes from Shakespeare: “Familiar in their mouths as household words.”]
It is a serious thing to attempt to learn about buttons at Birmingham. What buttons are we thinking of? we are asked, if we venture an inquiry. Do we want to see gilt, or silvered buttons? or electro-plated? or silk, or Florentine buttons? or mother-of-pearl, or steel, or wood, or bone, or horn buttons? All these are made here. Before we have made up our minds what to see first, we hear somebody say that button-dies are among the highest objects of the die-sinkers, and medallists’ art. This not only suddenly raises our estimate of buttons, but decides us to follow the production of the button from the earliest stage—if Messrs. Allen and Moore will kindly permit us to see what their artists and workmen are doing. This is not the first time that we have had a hankering after this spectacle. When we saw electro-plating—when we saw the making of pencil-cases and trinkets—we observed and handled many steel dies, and wondered how they were made. Now we are to learn.
It was not a little surprising to see, in other manufactories, ranges of shelves, or pigeon-holes, covering whole sides of rooms, filled with dies, worth from ten shillings to twenty-four shillings each. It was rather sad, too, to be told that a large proportion of these might never again be of any use—the fashion of a few weeks, or even days, having passed away. Much more surprising is the sight of the dies arranged along the shelves of the makers of this curious article. Messrs. Allen and Moore have made three thousand dies within the last three years: and upon each one, what thought has been spent—what ingenuity—what knowledge—what taste—what skill of eye and hand! A single die will occupy one man a month, with all his faculties in exercise; while another, with more natural aptitude, or courage, or experience, will do the same thing in two or three days. To think of one thousand in a year, produced with this effort and ability, and then to remember that button dies are among the highest productions of the art, cannot but elevate our respect for buttons very remarkably.
First, what is this steel die, which is so much heard of, and so seldom seen, except by those who go to seek it? It is a block of metal, round or square, as may happen, about four or five inches in height, and rather smaller at the top than the bottom. It consists of a piece of soft steel in the centre, surrounded by iron, to prevent its cracking by expansion, under the treatment it is to be subjected to. The bar of iron is wound round the steel when hot, and welded to it; and thus it comes from the forge, rough and dirty. The steel surface at the top is then polished; and if it is intended for a medal, it is turned in the lathe. The artist sketches his subject upon it, from the drawing before him, with a pencil. When he has satisfied himself with his drawing, he begins to engrave. He rests his graver (a sharp point of steel) across another graver, and cuts away—very gently; for it is always easy to cut away more, but impossible to restore the minutest chip when the stroke has gone too deep. He keeps beside him a lump of red clay, which he now and then lays upon his work, knocking it down smartly through a frame, which keeps it in shape; and thus he has presented to him his work in relief, and can judge of its effect so far. Little brushes in frames are also at hand, wherewith to brush away particles of steel, oil, and all dirt. When the engraving is done, the most anxious process of all succeeds. The steel must be hardened. All has been done that could be done to prevent fracture by the original surrounding of the steel with iron; but cracks will happen sometimes, and they spoil the work completely. The block is heated to a crimson heat—not to “a scaly heat,” but a more moderate degree; and then a dash of cold water hardens the steel. This dash of cold water is the nervous part of the business. In medals representing heads, there is usually only a narrow line left between the top of the concave head and the edge of the steel; and this is where the fracture is to be first looked for. When the Jenny Lind medal was to be struck at this house, no less than four dies were spoiled in succession. It was vexatious; but the artists went to work again, and succeeded. The Queen’s head is less mischievous than Jenny Lind’s, as the shallow work about the top of the crown intervenes between the deeper concavity and the rim. If the steel stands the hardening, the die is ready for use, except only that the plain surface must be well polished before the medal or button is struck.
Before we go to the medal press, we must look round this room a little. Ranged on shelves, and suspended from nails, are casts of limbs, of whole figures, of draperies, of foliage,—of everything that is pretty. This art comes next to that of the sculptor; and it requires much of the same training. When partially-draped figures are to be represented, the artist engraves the naked figure first, and the drapery afterwards; and to do this well, he must have the sculptor’s knowledge of anatomy. He must be familiar with the best works of art, because something of a classical air is required in such an article as a medal. The personifications of virtues, arts, sciences,—of all abstract conceptions which can thus be presented,—must be of the old classical types, or in close harmony with them. And then, how much else is required! Think of the skill in perspective required to engrave the Crystal Palace in the space of two or three inches! Think of the architectural drawing that an artist must be capable of who engraves public buildings by the score;—endowed grammar-schools, old castles, noblemen’s seats, market houses, and so forth! Think of the skill in animal drawing required for the whole series of sporting buttons—from the red deer to the snipe! Think of the varieties of horses and dogs, besides the game! For crest buttons, the lions and other animals are odd and untrue enough; but, out of the range of heraldry, all must be perfect pictures. And then, the word “pictures” reminds us of the exquisite copies of paintings which the die-sinker makes. Here is the “Christus Consolator” of Scheffer reproduced, with admirable spirit and fidelity, within a space so small, that no justice can be done to the work unless it is viewed through a magnifying glass.
So much for the execution. We have also not a little curiosity about the designing. The greater number of the designs are sent hither to be executed;—coats of arms; livery buttons; club buttons; service buttons;—buttons for this or that hunt; foreign buttons—the Spanish one sort, the French another. Sometimes a suggestion comes, or a rough sketch, which the artist has to work out. But much is originated on the premises. There is a venerable man living at Birmingham, who has seen four generations, and watched their progress in art; and he it is, we are told,—Mr. Lines, now above eighty, who has “furnished” (that is, discovered and trained) more designers than anybody else. It must be pleasant to him to see what Birmingham has arrived at since lamps were made with a leopard’s foot at the bottom, expanding into a leaf at the top, and so on, through a narrow circle of grotesque absurdities. Now, one cannot enter a manufactory, or pass along the streets of this wonderful town, without being impressed and gratified by the affluence of beauty, with good sense at the bottom of it, which everywhere abounds: and, to one who has helped on the change, as Mr. Lines has done, the gratification ought to be something enviable.
The variety of dies is amusing enough. Here is a prize medal for the Queen’s College at Cork: on one side, the Queen’s head, of course; on the other, Science—a kneeling figure, feeding a lamp; very pretty. Next, we see General Tom Thumb;—his mighty self on one side, and his carriage on the other. This medal he bought here at a penny a’piece; and he sold it again, with a kiss into the bargain, to an admiring female world, at the low price of a shilling. Then, we have the Duke of Cambridge, and the Governesses’ Institution; and Prince Albert, and the Crystal Palace; and, on the same shelf, the late Archbishop of Paris, on the barricade; and, again, the medal of the Eisteddfod—the eagle among clouds, above which rises the mountain peak: on the other side, Cardiff Castle; and for the border, the leek. But we must not linger among these dies, or we shall fill pages with accounts of whom and what we saw there;—the Peels and the Louis Napoleons; the Schillers and the Tom Thumbs; the private school and public market medals; royal families, free trade, charities, public solemnities, and private vanities, out of number. We will mention only one more fact in this connexion. We saw a broken medal press—a press which was worth one hundred pounds, and which broke under the strain of striking off seventy thousand medals for the school-children who welcomed the Queen to Manchester last autumn. Yes, there is another fact that we must give. Many thousands of “national boxes” are required for exportation, especially to Germany. These boxes contain four counters, intended for the whist table. These counters are little medals, containing the portraits of the Queen, of Prince Albert, of the Prince of Wales, and of the other royal children. The Germans decline all invitations to suggest other subjects. They prefer these, which are interesting to all, and which can cause no jealousy among the various states of Germany. So these medals are struck everlastingly.
The medal-press is partly sunk in the earth, to avoid the shock and vibration which would take place above-ground, and injure the impression from the die. Its weight is three tons; the screw and wheel alone weighing fifteen hundred-weight. The screw is of an extraordinary size, being six inches in diameter. One die is fixed to the block, which rises from the ground; and the other is fastened to the end of the screw, which is to meet it from above. Of course the medal must lie between them. This medal, called a “blank,” is (if not of gold, silver, or copper) of pure tin, cut out by one machine, cleaned and polished by another, and now brought here to be stamped by a third, and the greatest. This “blank” is laid on the lower die, and kept in its place, and preserved from expansion, when struck, by the collar, a stout circle of metal which embraces the die and blank. As the heavy horizontal wheel at the top revolves, the screw descends; so two or three men whirl the wheel round, with all their force; down goes the screw, with its die at its lower end, and stamps smartly upon the blank. A second stroke is given, and the impression is made. The edges are rough; but they are trimmed off in a lathe, and then the medal is finished. Button blanks are stamped in a smaller machine; some on these premises, but many in the manufactories of the button-makers. To those manufactories we must now pass on.
When little children are shown old portraits, they are pretty sure to notice the large buttons on the coats of our forefathers. Those buttons were, no doubt, made at Birmingham; for few were, in old days, made anywhere else in the kingdom. Those buttons were covered by women, and by the slow process of the needle. Women and girls sat round tables, in a cosey [sic] way, having no machinery to manage; and there was no clatter, or grinding, or stamping of machinery to prevent their gossiping as much as they liked. Before the workwomen lay moulds of horn or wood, of various shapes, but most commonly round, and always with a hole in the middle. These moulds were covered with gold or silver thread, or with sewing silk, by means of the needle. One would like to know how many women were required to supply, at this rate, the tailors who clothed the gentlemen of England? At last, the tailors made quicker work, by covering the moulds with the material of the dress. So obvious a convenience and saving as this might have been expected to take its place, as a matter of course, among new arrangements; but there were plenty of people who thought they could put down such buttons by applying to Parliament. A doleful petition was sent up, showing how needle-wrought buttons had been again and again protected by Parliament, and requesting the interposition of the Legislature once more against the tailoring practice of covering moulds with the same material as the coat or other dress. What would the petitioners have said, if they had been told that, in a century or so, one establishment would use metal for the manufacture of buttons to the amount of thirty-seven tons, six hundred-weight, two quarters, and one pound weight in one year! Yet this is actually the state of things now in Birmingham. And this is exclusive of the sort of button which, a few years ago, we should have called the commonest—the familiar gilt button, flat and plain.
As for the variety of kinds, William Hutton wrote about it as being great in his day; but it was nothing to what it is now. He says, “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 pace of the day, yet we sometimes find the oval, the square, the pea, the pyramid, flash into existence. In some branches of traffic the wearer calls loudly for new fashions; but in this, fashions tread upon each other, and crowd upon the wearer.” We do not see the square at present; but the others, with a long list of new devices, are still familiar to us.
Some grandmother, who reads this, may remember the days when she bought horn button moulds by the string, to be covered at home. Some middle-aged ladies may remember the anxieties of the first attempts to cover such moulds—one of the most important lessons given to the infant needlewoman. How many stitches went to the business of covering one mould! what coaxing to stretch the cover smooth! what danger of ravelling out at one point or another! what ruin if the thread broke! what deep stitches were necessary to make all secure! And now, by two turns of a handle, the covering is done to such perfection, that the button will last twice as long as of old, and dozens can be covered in a minute by one woman. The one house we have mentioned sends out two thousand gross of shirt buttons per week; the gross consisting of twelve dozens.
“But what of metal?” the reader may ask. “Have shirt buttons anything to do with metal? except, indeed, the wire rim of those shirt buttons which are covered with thread and which wear out in no time? When you talk of thirty-seven tons of metal, do you include wire?” No, we do not. We speak of sheet iron, and copper, and brass, used to make shirt-buttons, and silk, and satin, and acorn, and sugar-loaf, and waistcoat buttons, and many more, besides those which show themselves to be metal.
Here are long rooms, large rooms, many rooms, devoted to the making an article [sic] so small as to be a very name for nothingness. “I don’t care a button,” we say: but, little as a button may be worth to us, one single specimen may be worth to the manufacturer long days of toil and nights of care, and the gain or loss of thousands of pounds. We can the better believe it for having gone through those rooms. There we see range beyond range of machines—the punching, drilling, stamping machines, the polishing wheels, and all the bright and compact, and never-tiring apparatus which is so familiar a spectacle in Birmingham work-rooms. We see hundreds of women, scores of children, and a few men; and piles of the most desultory material that can be found anywhere, one would think—metal plates, coarse brown pasteboard, Irish linen, silk fringes, and figured silks of many colours and patterns.
First, rows of women sit, each at her machine, with its handle in her right hand, and a sheet of thin iron, brass, or copper, in the other. Shifting the sheet, she punches out circles many times faster than the cook cuts out shapes from a sheet of pastry. The number cut out and pushed aside in a minute is beyond belief to those who have not seen it done. By the same method, the rough pasteboard is cut; and linen (double, coarse and fine) for shirt buttons; and silk and satin;—in short, all the round parts of all buttons. The remains are sold—to the foundries, and the ragman, and the papermakers. Very young children gather up the cut circles. Little boys, “just out of the cradle,” range the pasteboard circles, and pack them close, on edge, in boxes or trays; and girls, as young, arrange on a table the linen circles, small and larger. Meantime, the machines are busily at work. Some are punching out the middle of the round bits of iron, or copper, or pasteboard, to allow the cloth or linen within to protrude, so as to be laid hold of by the needle which is to sew on the button. This makes the back or under-part of the button. Another machine wraps the metal top of the button in cloth, turns down the edges, fixes in the pasteboard mould, and the prepared back, and closes all the rims, so as to complete the putting together of the five parts that compose the common Florentine button which may be seen on any gentleman’s coat. It is truly a wonderful and beautiful apparatus; but its operation cannot well be described to those who have not seen it. Black satin waistcoat buttons, and flat and conical buttons covered with figured silks, are composed of similar parts, and stuck together, with all edges turned in, by the same curious process. Shirt-buttons are nearly of the same make; but, instead of two pieces of metal, for the back and front, there is only one; and that is a rim, with both edges turned down, so as to leave a hollow for the reception of the edges of all the three pieces of linen which cover the button. A piece of fine linen, lined with a piece very stout and coarse, covers the visible part of the button, and goes over the rim.
A piece of middling quality is laid on behind: and, by the machine, all the edges are shut fast into the hollow of the rim—the edges of which are, by the same movement, closed down nicely upon their contents, leaving the button so round, smooth, compact, and complete, that it is as great a mystery where the edges are all put away, as how the apple gets into the dumpling. No one would guess how neat the inside of the button is, that did not see it made. The rims are silvered as carefully as if they were for show. When struck from the brass or copper, and bent, they are carried to the yard, where an earnest elderly man, dressed in an odd suit of green baize, stands at a stone table, with a bucket of stone ware, pierced with holes, in his hand, and troughs before him, containing—the first, diluted aquafortis, and the others, water. The bucket, half full of button rims, is dipped in the aquafortis bath, well shaken there, and then passed through successive waterings, finishing at the pump. The rims, now clean and bright, must be silvered. They are shaken and boulted (as a miller would say), covered with a mysterious silvering powder, the constitution of which we were not to inquire into; and out they come, as white as so many teaspoons. Thus it is, too, with the brace-buttons, on which the machines are at work all this time. Each has to be pierced with four holes; necessary, as we all know, for sewing on buttons which have to bear such a strain as these have. This piercing with four holes can be inflicted, by one woman, on fifteen gross per hour. The forming the little cup in the middle of the button, where the holes are, in order to raise the rim of the button from the surface of the dress, is called counter-sinking; and that process has a machine to itself; one of the long row of little engines which look almost alike, but which discharge various offices in this manufacture, at once so small and so great. These buttons go down to the burnisher’s department in company with some which make a prodigious show at a very small cost—the stage ornaments which are professionally called “spangles.” Let no novice suppose that these are the little scales of excessively thin metal which are called spangles on doll’s dresses and our grandmothers’ embroidered shoes. These stage spangles are nearly an inch in diameter, cut out in the middle, and bent into a rim, to reflect light the better. In the Hippodrome they cover the boddices [sic] of princesses, and stud the trappings of horses at a tournament; and in stage processions they make up a great part of the glitter. Of these, twenty-five thousand gross in a year are sent out by this house alone; a fact which gives an overwhelming impression of the amount of stage decoration which must always be exhibiting itself in England.
In our opinion, it was prettier to see these “spangles” burnished here than glittering on the stage; and, certainly, the brace-buttons we had been tracing out would never more be so admired as when they were brightening up at the wheel. The burnisher works his lathe with a treadle. The stone he uses is a sort of bloodstone, found in Derbyshire, which lasts a lifetime in use. Each button is picked up and applied: a pleasant twanging, vibrating tune—very like a Jew’s harp—comes from the flying wheel; the button is dropped—polished in half a second; and another is in its place, almost before the eye can follow. Six or eight gross can thus be burnished in an hour by one workman. If the brace-buttons are to have rims, or to be milled, or in any way ornamented, now is the time; and here are the lathes in which it is done. The workmen need to have good heads, as well as practised hands; for, even in an article like this, society is full of fancies, and there may be a hundred fashions in a very short time;—a new one almost every week. These harping lathes, in a row, about their clean and rapid work, are perhaps the prettiest part of the whole show. At the further end of the apartment sits a woman with heaps of buttons and spangles, and piles of square pieces of paper before her. With nimble fingers she ranges the finished articles in rows of half-a-dozen or more, folds in each row, and makes up her packets as fast, probably, as human hands can do it. But this is a sort of work which one supposes will be done by machinery some day.
Still, all this while, the long rows of machines on the counters, above and below, and on either hand, are at work, cutting, piercing, stamping, counter-sinking. We must go and see more of their work. Here is one shaping in copper the nut of the acorn: another is shaping the cup. Disks of various degrees of concavity, sugar-loaves, and many other shapes, are dropping by thousands from the machines into the troughs below. And here is the covering or pressing machine again at work—here covering the nut of the acorn with green satin, and there casing the cup with green Florentine; and finally fitting and fastening them together, so that no ripening and loosening touch of time shall, as in the case of the natural acorn, cause them to drop apart. This exquisite machinery was invented about eleven years ago, and is now patented by the Messrs. Elliott, in whose premises we are becoming acquainted with it.
We have fastened upon the acorn button, because it is the prettiest; and, just now, before everybody’s eyes, in shop, street, or drawing-room: but the varieties of dress-button are endless. Some carry a fringe; and the fringes come from Coventry. To ornament others, the best skill of Spitalfields is put forth. In a corner of an up-stairs [sic] room there is a pile of rich silks and other fabrics, which seem to be out of place in a button manufactory, till we observe that they are woven expressly for the covering of buttons. They have sprigs or circles, at regular distances. One woman passes the piece under a machine, which chalks out each sprig; and the next machine stamps out the chalked bit. This, again, is women’s and children’s work; and we find, on inquiry, that of the three or four hundred people employed on these premises, nearly all are women and children. We saw few men employed, except in the silvering and burnishing departments.
The most interesting and beautiful kind of button of all, however, depends upon the skill of men employed elsewhere—the die-sinkers, of whom we have already given some news. There is a series of stamped buttons, gilt or silvered, which one may go and see, as one would so many pictures;—that sort of badge called sporting buttons. Members of a hunt, or of any sporting association, distinguish themselves by wearing these pretty miniature pictures; here, a covey of partridges, with almost every feather indicated in the high finish;—there, a hound clearing a hedge;—now, a group of huntsman and pack;—and again, a fishing-net meshing the prey; or the listening stag or bounding fawn. In these small specimens of art, the details are as curious, the composition as skilful, the life of the living as vivid, and the aspect of the dead as faithful, as if the designer were busy on a wine-cup for a king, instead of a button for a sporting jacket. Here there must be a dead ground; there a touch of burnish; here a plain ground; there a plaided or radiating one; but everywhere the most perfect finish that talent and care can give. There is surely something charming in seeing the smallest things done so thoroughly, as if to remind the careless, that whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well. We no longer wonder as we did, that the button branch is one of the most advanced in the business of the die-sinker and medallist.
Pearl buttons have their style of “ornamentation” too; but the die-sinker and professional designer have nothing to do with it. There is something more in the ornamenting of pearl buttons than the delicate work done with the turning tools;—the circles, and stars, and dots, and exquisite milled edges, with which our common pearl buttons are graced. At the manufactory we are shown drawers full of patterns; and among those in favour with working men are some with pearl centres, on which are carved, with curious skill, various devices;—a dog, or a bird, or some such pretty thing. These designs are notions of the workmen’s own.
The pearl button manufacture is the prettiest, after all;—the prettiest of that family of production. Perhaps the charm is in the material,—the broad shell, which we know to have been, a while ago, at the bottom of the Indian seas. The rainbow light, which gleams from the surface, seems to show to us the picture of where this shell once was, and what was done about it. This is not from the Gulf of Mexico—this shell. Many come from thence; but this is of too good a quality for those western seas. Nor is it from Manilla, though the Manilla shells are very fine. This comes from Singapore, and is of the best quality. To get it, what toil and pains, what hopes and fears, what enterprises and calculations have been undertaken and undergone! What boatsful of barbarians went out, amidst the muttering and chanting of charms, to the diving for the shells for our handling! How gently were they paddled over those deep clear seas, where the moon shines with a golden light, and sends her rays far down into the green depths which the diver is about to intrude upon! As the land-breeze came from stirring the forest, and breathing over the rice-grounds, to waft the boats out to sea, the divers prepared for their plunge, each slinging his foot on the heavy stone which was to carry him down, nine fathoms deep, to where his prey was reposing below. Then there was the plunge, and the wrenching of the shells from the rocks, and putting them into the pouch at the waist; and the ascent, amidst a vast pressure of water, causing the head to seethe and roar, and the ears to ache, and the imprisoned breath to convulse the frame; and then there was the fear of sharks, and the dread spectacle of wriggling and shooting fishes, and who knows what other sights! And then, the breath hastily snatched; and the fearful plunge to be made again! And then must have followed the sale to the Singapore merchant; and the packing and shipping to England; and the laying up in London, to gather an enormous price—the article being bought up by a few rich merchants—and the journey to Birmingham, where the finest part of the shell is to be kept for buttons, and the coarser part sent on to Sheffield, to make the handles of knives, paper-cutters, and the like.
Through such adventures has this broad shell gone, which we now hold in our hand. In the middle is the seamed, imperfect part, from which the fish was torn. From that centre; all round to the thin edge, is the fine part which is to be cut into buttons. From that centre back to the joint is the ridgy portion which, with its knots, will serve for knife-handles. There is, perhaps, no harder substance known; and strong must be the machine that will cut it. It is caught and held with an iron grip, while the tubular saw cuts it in circles, a quarter of an inch (or more) thick. Some of the circles are an inch and a half in diameter; others as small as the tiny buttons seen on baby-clothes. They are, one by one, clutched by a sort of pincers, and held against a revolving cylinder, to be polished with sand and oil. Then, each is fixed on a lathe, and turned, and smoothed; adorned with concentric rings, or with stars, or leaves, or dots; and then corded or milled at the edges, with streaks almost too fine to be seen by the naked eye. The figures in the middle are to mask the holes by which the button is to be sewn on. In a small depression, in the centre of the pattern, the holes are drilled by a sharp hard point which pierces the shell. The edges of the holes are sharp, as housewives well know. But for the cutting of the thread, in course of time, by these edges, pearl buttons would wear for ever. Now and then, the thin pierced bit in the middle breaks out; but, much oftener, the button is lost by the cutting of the thread. They last so long, however, as to make us wonder how there can be any need of the vast numbers that are made. Birmingham supplies almost the whole world. A very few are made at Sheffield; and that is all. In the United States, where the merchants can get almost any quantity of the shell, from their great trade with Manilla and Singapore, the buttons are not made. The Americans buy an incredible quantity from Birmingham. Many thousands of persons in this town are employed in the business; and one house alone sends out two thousand gross per week, and very steadily; for fashion has little or nothing to do with pearl buttons. The demand is steady and increasing; and it would increase much faster but for the restriction in the quantity of the material. The profit made by the manufacturer is extremely small—so dear as the shell is. The Singapore shell was sold not many years ago at sixty-five pounds per ton; now, it cannot be had under one hundred and twenty-two pounds, ten shillings, per ton. The manufacturer complains of monopoly. If this be the cause of the dearness, the evil will, in the nature of things, be lessened before long. Time will show whether the shells are becoming exhausted, like the furs of polar countries. We ventured to suggest, while looking round at the pile of shell fragments, and the heaps of white dust that accumulate under the lathes, that it seems a pity to waste all this refuse, seeing how valuable a manure it would make, if mixed with bone-dust or guano. The reply was, that it is impossible to crush a substance so hard; that there is no machine which will reduce these fragments to powder. If so, some solvent will probably be soon found, which will act like diluted sulphuric acid upon bones. While we were discussing this matter, and begging a pint or quart of the powder from under the lathes, to try a small agricultural experiment with, a workman mentioned that when he worked at Sheffield, a neighbouring farmer used to come, at any time, and at any inconvenience to himself, to purchase shell-powder, when allowed to fetch it, declaring it to be inestimable as a manure. In a place like Birmingham, where the sweepings and scrapings of the floors of manufactories are sold for the sake of the metal dust that may have fallen, we venture to predict that such heaps and masses of shell fragments as we saw, will not long be cast away as useless rubbish. If one house alone could sell two hundred and fifty tons of shell-refuse per year, what a quantity of wheat and roots might be produced from under the counters, as it were, of Birmingham workshops! And we were told that such a quantity would certainly be afforded. Such a sale may, in time, become some set-off against the extreme dearness of the imported shell. While the smallest pearl button goes through nine or ten pairs of hands before it is complete, the piece from which it is cut may hereafter be simmering in some dissolving acid; and sinking into the ground, and rising again, soft and green, as the blade of wheat, or swelling into the bulb of the turnip. Will not some one try?
While this dust was bubbling out from under the turning-tools, and flying about before it settled, we had misgivings about the lungs of the workmen. But it seems there was no need. The workman who was exhibiting his art in the dusty place, told us he had worked thus for nine-and-twenty years, and had enjoyed capital health; and truly, he looked stout and comfortable enough; and we saw no signs of ill-health among the whole number employed. The proprietor cares for them—for their health, their understandings, their feelings, and their fortunes; and he seems to be repaid by the spectacle of their welfare.
The white pearl buttons are not the only ones made of shells from the Eastern seas. There is a sort called black, which to our eyes looked quite as pretty, gleaming as it did with green and lilac colours, when moved in the light. This kind of shell comes from the islands of the Pacific. It is plentiful round Tahiti, and Hawaii, (as we now call Otaheite and Owhyhee). It is much worn by working men, in the larger forms of buttons. We remember to have often seen it; but never to have asked what it was.
The subsidiary concerns of these large manufactories strike us by their importance, when on the spot, though we take no heed to them in our daily life. When the housewife has taken into use the last of a strip of pearl buttons, she probably gives to the children the bit of gay foil on which they were tacked, without ever thinking where it came from, or how it happened to be there. The importation of this foil is a branch of trade with France. We cannot compete with the French in the manufacture of it. When we saw it in bundles—gay with all gaudy hues—we found it was an expensive article, adding notably to the cost of the buttons, though its sole use is to set off their translucent quality, to make them more tempting to the eye.
We saw a woman, in her own home, surrounded by her children, tacking the buttons on their stiff paper, for sale. There was not foil in this case between the stiff paper and the buttons, but a brilliant blue paper, which looked almost as well. This woman sews forty gross in a day. She could formerly, by excessive diligence, sew fifty or sixty gross; but forty is her number now—and a large number it is, considering that each button has to be picked up from the heap before her, ranged in its row, and tacked with two stitches.
Here we had better stop, though we have not told half that might be related on the subject of buttons. It is wonderful, is it not? that on that small pivot turns the fortune of such multitudes of men, women, and children, in so many parts of the world; that such industry, and so many fine faculties, should be brought out and exercised by so small a thing as the Button.