|Introduction: The Birmingham Button Trade part 1|
|The general history of button making: The Birmingham Button Trade part 2|
|The development of the button trade in Birmingham: The Birmingham Button Trade part 3|
|Linen and vegetable ivory buttons: The Birmingham Button Trade part 4|
|Metal buttons: The Birmingham Button Trade part 5|
|Pearl buttons: The Birmingham Button Trade part 6|
|Bone, glass and porcelain: The Birmingham Button Trade part 7|
|What about the workers?: The Birmingham Button Trade part 8|
|What about the workers abroad, especially France?: The Birmingham Button Trade part 9|
|Germany, and Editor's final footnote: The Birmingham Button Trade part 10|
Page 9 of 10
The Birmingham Button Trade part 9
No notice of button making would be complete without some comparative reference to the position of the trade abroad. Certain classes of buttons are made in every country on a limited scale, since where official uniforms are required the small quantities of buttons needed to furnish them cannot be always conveniently imported, and the metropolis of every country contains therefore some manufacture of buttons. The great seats of this industry, however, are confined to a few localities. In France, where the development of the trade has been something magnificent within the last quarter of a century, it is followed mainly in Paris, and some few places within a circuit of sixty miles from it, which I shall notice presently; also at Lyons.
In Germany there are a multitude of houses producing all the cheaper kinds of fancy buttons in the Rhenish Provinces of Prussia, chiefly about Elberfeld and Barwed; and in Bohemia, as before stated; vast quantities of cheap fancy glass buttons are produced at Prague and adjacent towns; at Vienna also the pearl button-making rivals Birmingham, and has extinguished its competition in certain descriptions.
There is no extensive industry in button making in other countries of Europe, unless I include the existence of one very considerable manufactory at Milan; but in the United States there are again large quantities of all kinds produced. In proof of the resources of the makers there, it may be mentioned that on the breaking out of the civil war the Northern States found no need to come to Europe for the sudden and enormous demand there must have been for army and navy buttons, but were supplied throughout by their own manufacturers; the Southern States naturally imported all they could by the blockade runners from Europe.
One peculiarity of the United States’ productions has been the making of considerable quantities of vulcanized rubber buttons, a description which has not been patronised in Europe, partly, perhaps, from their peculiar smell. As, however, the United States are large importers of buttons from Europe, and not at all exporters hither, we English manufacturers do not hear much about our brethren of the guild on the other side the ocean.
Of the position of the trade in France, I give the following account as received from a Parisian friend, who, from his intimate acquaintance with all its branches, and with most of the manufacturers there, has good opportunities for forming a correct opinion. There is, however, the same difficulty there in arriving at precise statistics as here, in consequence of the number of small makers, which number from 80 to 100 for various kinds of metal buttons alone, from 70 to 80 for covered buttons, and from 70 to 80 for other kinds.
There are employed in Paris alone:—
A. — In metal buttons of all kinds, and including buttons mounted or set with metal about
B. — In covered buttons about
C. — In other kinds of buttons—as horn, pearl, bone, &c about
As for bone, pearl, vegetable ivory, wood, &c., buttons, they are made chiefly at Meru and its neighbouring towns, as Chaumont, Valdampierre, Bearnais, from 40 to 60 miles from Paris, on the northern side, where, probably, fully 2,000 people are employed in these branches; perhaps another 1,000 or so being employed in the making of sewn-silk, &c., buttons, about Apremont, near Chantilly.
The porcelain buttons are made at Briare and Montereau, each some sixty miles from Paris. At the former is the celebrated establishment of Mons. Bapterosse, employing about 1,000 people, besides another 4,000 or more of outworkers in a circuit of twenty miles, who however are all women and children, to whom the buttons are given out at their homes to be carded or sewn on, or to have the shanks fixed in, which has to be done by hand. At the latter place there are also between 200 to 300 hands employed for the same buttons, with a corresponding number of outworkers.
There are also about 2,000 persons employed in some kinds of button making in the prisons in France, where the Government seems to have succeeded better than our own in utilising the labour of criminals.
At Lyons, where various kinds of very cheap buttons are made, there are another 2,000 or so employed in their production, so that altogether this industry may engage in the whole of France about 20,000 persons, a tangible proof that its development must exceed considerably that of the trade here, though when comparing France with England we must add about 1,000 more to the numbers given as employed in Birmingham, to allow for those who are engaged in London and other parts of the country in button making. Some twenty to thirty years ago there were more buttons exported hence to France than there were from France hither. Now, however, this state of matters is quite reversed; and though some few Birmingham buttons, more especially linen ones, for shirts, are sold in France in no inconsiderable quantities; and though some of us keep up a spirited competition, even in those fancy goods in which the French particularly excel, they must be admitted on the whole to be masters of the course in our own markets in all except the ordinary styles of plain goods.
Various causes have conspired to produce this result:—
Firstly—The unmistakable fact that in all fancy articles the ingenuity, taste, and artistic skill which are the peculiar gifts of the French are more important elements than accidental advantages, such as the possession of a lower rate of labour, or of cheaper raw material.
Secondly—The French have a wider and easier market. Great Britain, by the abolition of all duties on imported buttons, is entirely open to foreign manufacturers, while to buyers from other ports of Europe, Paris is a more central mart, and being the acknowledged leader of fashion, is for every reason universally visited, and multitudes throng there to select their stocks for millinery or tailors’ purposes, who would never dream of coming to Birmingham. True it is that for many distant places, such as our own colonies, the East and West Indies, &c., &c., London and Manchester, where
Birmingham goods are well represented, are very generally visited; but even this does not apply with much force to buyers for such articles as suit milliners and tailors, who, if they do come here from those localities always go to Paris as well.
Thirdly—within the period referred to “La Boutonnerie” has been energetically promoted in Paris by a series of business-like and clever men, who have made it their special work. Every trade has its seasons of vigour and decay, due in some measure to the activity or inertness of its professors, irrespective of fortuitous circumstances. When a period of such activity occurs, in combination with favourable commercial conditions, trade advances with rapid strides, and this I consider to have been the case of the button trade in Paris during the past and present generation.
In the cost of all metals, copper, steel, iron, and in such raw materials as pearl shells, corozo nuts, and perhaps hoofs— in the materials for covered buttons (silk excepted)—and in the cost of labour, Birmingham enjoys certain advantages, as compared with Paris, which have enabled her to maintain her position in the trade. In Paris, the makers have to import most of their materials from England, and as to wages, those of women, who are the most numerous, average 10 to 20 per cent. higher than in England, while there are many cases, in warehouses and responsible positions, where they get clerks’ salaries, a thing unheard of here. Some kinds of work, moreover, which are done here by skilled women, are done there by men, and consequently cost more, although, perhaps, such men do not get large wages for men. In other respects men’s wages are probably much about the same as here, certainly not less.
These remarks, however, do not refer to the country towns in France where buttons are made, where wages no doubt range at lower rates.