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THE CONTENTS OF MY WORK-BOX.
HOW BUTTONS ARE MADE.
t is scarcely possible to determine when buttons, which are both
useful and ornamental, were first made. In the paintings of the
fourteenth century they frequently appear on the garments of both sexes,
but in many instances they are drawn without button-holes, and are
placed in such situations as to suggest that at that time they were used
more for ornament than usefulness.
It was towards the close of the sixteenth century that button-making
was first considered a business, and that the manufacturers formed a
Button-making was originally a very tedious and expensive process.
The button consisted of one solid piece of metal; the ornaments on the
face of it were the work of an engraver. To obviate the expense
connected with such a method of production, the press, stamp, and engine
for turning the moulds were introduced. This improvement led the way for
other improvements, both with regard to the materials from which buttons
were afterwards made and also the process of manufacture. The plain gilt
button, which was extensively used in the early part of the present
century, was made from an alloy called plating metal, which contained a
larger proportion of copper and less zinc than ordinary brass. The
devices on the outer surface were produced by stamping the previously
cut out blanks or metal discs with steel dies, after which the necks
were soldered in. At the present time every possible kind of metal, from
iron to gold, whether pure or mixed; every conceivable woven fabric,
from canvas to the finest satin and velvet; every natural production
capable of being turned out or pressed, as wood, horn, hoof, pearl,
bone, ivory, jet, ivory nuts; every manufactured material of which the
same may be said, as caoutchouc, leather, papier maché, glass,
porcelain, etc., buttons are made in a great variety of shape; but at
the present time they may be classed under four heads: buttons with
shanks, buttons without shanks, buttons on rings or wire moulds, and
buttons covered with cloth or some other material.
In the process of metal button-making by means of fly presses and
punches, circular discs, called blanks, are cut out of sheets of metal.
This work is usually done by females, who, while seated at a bench,
manage to cut out as many as thirty blanks per minute, or twelve gross
in an hour. On leaving the press the edges of the blanks are very sharp.
When they have been smoothed and rounded, the surfaces are planished on
the face by being placed separately in a die, under a small stamp, and
causing them to receive a sharp blow from a polished steel hammer. The
next process is that of shanking, or attaching small metal loops, by
which they are fastened to garments. The shank manufacture is a distinct
branch of the trade in Birmingham, although at times carried on in the
The shanks are made by a machine, in which a coil of wire is
gradually advanced towards a pair of shears, which cut off short pieces.
A metal finger then presses against the middle of each piece, first
bending it and then pressing it into a vice, where it is compressed so
as to form a loop; a hammer then strikes the two ends, spreading them
into a flat surface, and the shank is pushed out of the machine ready
for use. The shanks in some instances are attached to the blanks by
women with iron wire, solder, and resin, after which they are placed in
an oven, and when firmly united are removed and form plain buttons. In
the majority of cases, however, soldering is dispensed with, the shanks
being made secure in the press.
If the button is to be finished without a shank, it is passed on from
the press, which it leaves as a blank, to another where the holes are
pierced, and then to a third where the roughness is removed from the
edges of the holes.
The commonest metal buttons which I have seen in process of making
were cut out of scraps of tin, similar to what may be seen on the refuse
heap of any shop where tin goods are made. The hand presses worked by
women cut out the blanks, made a simple impression on the outside, and
turned up the edges all round at the same time. The blanks were then
passed on to another press, where pieces of cardboard were inserted, and
the edges turned over to keep them firm. The holes were next pierced,
and a finish given by a blow from a stamp.
I felt deeply interested in seeing all kinds of buttons in process of
being made, some for India, others for Chili, and our own army, but the
prettiest and most interesting to witness while passing through the
presses, stamps, and hands of the workers were some which were being
made for Malta. In passing through the first press the blank was
embossed and cut out. By another press the edge was scalloped, and by a
third press the open work was effected. The next process was that of so
pressing each disc to such an extent that the scalloped edges of two
might meet, and thus form a round button of pretty design when united,
and a shank fastened in the centre of one of the blanks.
Military buttons, like many others, are made of two discs of metal,
the impression on the outer ones being produced by a sharp blow in a
stamp, the under ones having two holes pierced in them for the shanks,
which are put through and bent flat on the inside. They are next passed
through another press which firmly fastens the two discs together, and
holds the shank so securely as to obviate the necessity of having
recourse to soldering.
Covered buttons are made in an immense variety of textiles. It is
impossible in the space allowed for this paper to enumerate them, but I
may add that their ingenious construction, their good wearing qualities,
the clever mechanism of the tools by which the various discs of cloth,
metal, millboard, etc., are cut out, and the methods of uniting them so
as to form a complete button, are marvels of skill and industry.
The earliest covered buttons were made so recently as the year 1802,
in Birmingham, by Mr. B. Sanders. Those buttons had metal shanks, but by
the ingenuity of Mr. Sanders, jun., his father's invention was completed
by tufts of canvas, through which the buttons could be attached to
garments, being substituted for rigid metal shanks. The only improvement
since made has been that of covering the back of the silk-fronted
buttons also with silk.
A covered button consists of two discs of metal and one of millboard,
thicker or thinner, according to circumstances. In making it, the sheet
of iron is first scaled, by the use of powerful acids, and then cut into
proper size and shape by a press. The neck, or collet, of the button is
japanned after being stamped and cut. The hollow between the neck and
shell is filled with millboard. When the parts are put together and
pressed the button is brought into shape, and its several parts are
It was in the year 1841 that Mr. John Aston made the first three-fold
linen button—that is, a button formed of a linen covering and a ring of
metal, so put together that both sides and centre were completely
covered with separate pieces of linen, and thus produced being quite
flat. This being an exceedingly neat and convenient button, it became
largely patronised, as it still is by housewives, for all underclothing,
having superseded the old thread button formed of a ring of wire, with
threads drawn over it and gathered in the centre. A slight improvement
was made by Mr. Elliott. During the time that the patent lasted these
two gentlemen worked in concert, and established a very successful
So great has been the demand for covered linen buttons at different
times, that during one single year Mr. Elliott's successors have in the
process of making them required 63,000 yards of cloth and 34 tons of
metal, and given employment to 250 persons. As the button trade has for
a considerable time been in a very depressed condition, it is possible
that the productions of this firm may not be of such magnitude as they
were a few years since.
With regard to the depressed condition of this branch of Birmingham
industries, one manufacturer assured me, only a few weeks ago, that
where 150 persons were employed at one time, not more than 20 or 30
would be working then. In visiting one of the largest manufactories the
same day, I saw sufficient to convince me of the truthfulness of his
statement, for in passing through the different workshops I saw one or
two presses, stamps, and turning-lathes at work, whereas several were
unused and without attendants. One firm, when trade is in a flourishing
condition, will make about 15,000 gross of linen buttons weekly. Ivory
buttons are made from the tusks of elephants; but as the material is
expensive, and the manipulation has to be conducted with great care, and
that chiefly by hand, they can only be used by persons who can afford to
pay a goodly sum.
During the last few years, in which a great variety of colours has
been introduced, both for ladies' and gentlemen's garments, and buttons
have been required to match, it is fortunate that a substitute has been
found for ivory in the kernel of the "corozo" nut. This nut grows in
clusters on palm-like trees in South America, and is husked like a
cocoanut, but is different in shape and considerably smaller in
dimensions. The kernel—the part used in button-making—is milk-white, and
being softer than animal ivory, is more easily turned, and as it readily
absorbs dyes, it can be made to take any colour with little trouble.
The process of making these vegetable ivory buttons is as
follows:—After boys have cracked the shells, the kernels are taken by
men standing at benches in which small fine-toothed saws are revolving.
Only a slight pressure of the nut against the saw is required before it
is divided into equal parts. If necessary, the operation is repeated.
Providing, however, that the pieces of the nut are of proper dimensions,
they are passed on to the turner.
The next process is that of cutting out or turning, and is performed
in the following manner:—The turner, after fixing a piece of the nut in
the chuck of his lathe, brings a tubular cutter, the face edge of which
is toothed like a saw, to work on the exposed front surface of the nut;
the result is that of a rough button or mould. As these moulds are
rough, they are passed on to another lathe, where they are made smooth,
and then to a third, where the holes are drilled. They are next passed
on to the dyer, who arranges his colours according to instructions
received. It sometimes happens that a mottled appearance is required;
when such is the case, girls are employed to touch them with the colours
required by the aid of camel-hair pencils. The buttons are next placed
in tanks for drying, the tanks being heated by steam for that purpose.
Most of the buttons are polished in lathes by friction from their own
dust, held in the hand of the operative.
Porcelain buttons were invented by Mr. R. Prosser, of Birmingham,
who, in conjunction with the celebrated firm of Minter and Co., made
them in large quantities in the potteries, about the year 1840. They
were, however, soon driven from the market by French manufacturers, who
sold a great gross—that is, twelve gross, each of twelve dozen—for the
ridiculously small sum of elevenpence.
Glass buttons are made by heating canes of glass and pinching them
from the end with pliers, which at the same time answer the purpose of a
die. They are sold very cheaply, as low as twopence a gross, but it is
scarcely possible for any English firm to compete with Bohemia in their
Mother-o'-pearl buttons are made out of pearl shells which have been
imported from the coasts of Macassar, Manilla, Bombay, the archipelago
of the Pacific, the Bay of Panama, and a few other places. Their market
value is not always the same. At the present time it ranges from £8 to
£10 per hundredweight. The blanks are cut out of the shells by a steel
tubular cutter, similar to that used in cutting the vegetable ivory. As
the cutter works its way through a shell, small cylinders of pearl are
disconnected, which are reduced in thickness by splitting into discs, a
little thicker than the button is required to be when finished. These
blanks are finished singly in a turning lathe, by being placed in a
suitable chuck, and having a steel tool applied to its face for
producing the rim and depression in the centre. They are then passed on
to another lathe, where the holes are drilled, and afterwards to
another, where they are polished by friction and a mixture of
rotten-stone and soft soap.
The best white buttons are those which are made from Macassar shells,
and the best black from shells of the archipelago of the Pacific. The
latter are the dearest, in consequence of the black shells not being so
plentiful as those of lighter shades. Some few years since the
consumption of mother-o'-pearl shells in Birmingham amounted to nearly
one thousand tons annually; the failure of the fisheries in Central
America has, however, reduced it to a little more than a third, or about
three hundred tons a year.
Thimbles are made by stamping, and afterwards turning in a lathe, the
indentations being produced by a suitable instrument. On the Continent
the operatives make them with punches in as many as five different
mandrils. Scissors, bodkins, etc., have nothing connected with their
manufacture which calls for any special notice. Although, as in previous
papers, I have conducted my readers in paths not usual to girls and
young women, I hope that my description of button-making will interest a
considerable number, and teach them to think more of buttons and how
they are made and by whom made than they have ever done before.
W. W. B.
OCTOBER 9, 1886
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