This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Buttons. [Fr. bouton, from bout, end, extremity, bud]. A catch of various forms and materials, used to fasten together the different parts of dress. In ancient times buttons were far from being as universally used as they are now. Clasps, hooks and eyes, or things made of wood, were the articles most generally used in fastening the two edges of garments, and with these rude things the people of those days had to be content. Now, however, buttons are made of various materials. Horn, bone, agate, india-rubber, mother-of-pearl, various woods and vegetable ivory are but a small part of the substances which have been pressed into this service; while for covering buttons there is used lasting, brocade, twist, velvet. silk and mohair.
Button manufacture did not assume any special form until the 14th century, when buttons of gold and ivory were used as ornaments for the dress of both sexes. In England, at the commencement of the 17th century, the button trade had assumed formidable proportions, and large quantities of bone, steel and wooden buttons were shipped to this country. The first that were manufactured in the United States was in the year 1826, by Samuel Williston. While he was dragging along as a country store-keeper at East Hampton, Mass., his wife bethought her that she could cover by hand the wooden buttons of that time and thus earn an honest penny. From this humble beginning the couple advanced in their ambition until they had perfected machinery for covering buttons, the first employed in this coun-try. From this sprang an immense factory, and then others, until Samuel Williston made half the buttons of the world. His factories are still running at Leeds and East Hampton, Mass., coining wealth for the proprietors.
There are two systems used for the measurement of buttons, the English and the French. English measurement runs 14,16,18,20, etc., "lines," while the French runs 4, 41/2 , 5, 51/2 , etc. An English " line " is one-fortieth of an inch, or 40 lines to the inch; the French "line" may be expressed thus .08887 of an inch. The French line measurement is said to be obsolete, yet it is every day in practical use. To show in what relation the respective systems stand to each other, see the following:
Vegetable Ivory buttons are made in large quantities in this country, at Leeds, Mass., and at New York and Newark. The ivory nut, as it is called by the trade, is grown in the hot regions of South America. The principal point of shipment is Colon, on the Isthmus of Panama. Like the banana, the ivory nut is perennial in its native clime, and may be found in all stages from the bud to the ripened nut at all seasons of the year. The nuts grow in great bunches of about fifty, incased in a shell, as are chestnuts in the burr, though the shell outwardly resembles in roughness the surface of a pineapple. The entire cluster of nuts in this shell is as big as a man's head. This shell comes off easily after the nuts are ripe. At this stage they fall from the trees, which are fourteen or fifteen feet in height, and are packed on the backs of natives to the points of shipment. These are shipped to this country and kiln-dried, sawed into slabs of the proper thickness from which the buttons are cut by a lathe, the holes being drilled in by a power lathe. One of the peculiar features of the material, in relation to buttons, is its susceptibility to coloring matter. It can be colored any shade that is desired by the manufacturers. The artistic tailors and dressmakers make use of this to great advantage in the adaptation of buttons to garments, even in making up mottled goods buttons in perfect harmony with the material may be secured. The grain of the nut is white and of even texture, so that it is easily carved, sawed and worked into any desirable shape The trees are not farmed or raised artificially as is the banana tree, but grows in its natural state and in its own manner in the primeval forests, the same as the hickory or the chestnut or the walnut. About 4,000 tons of the ivory nut are brought to this country annually, and lying stacked up on the pier at New York resemble large hay-stacks and are interesting as illustrative of the great variety of extraordinary things brought to this market from various parts of the world and the ingenuity of those who have cleverly adapted them to the uses of mankind. Owing to the cheapness of the raw material, there is not more than $150,000 per annum involved in the traffic. 1,500 persons in New York alone are employed in handling the nut and manufacturing it into buttons. Unlike rubber and bone, ivory is not affected by heat or cold and is not liable to break in the eye. The cost of manufacturing is the principle item of expense, about 80 per cent of the cost of vegetable ivory buttons being the labor. The greatest production in this country was from 1880 to 1890, but the Germans having the advantage of cheaper labor are now able to successfully compete with American manufacture. The duty is forty percent, fifteen per cent of it having been a raise under the McKinley act.
Metal buttons are made of various materials, the variety known as gilt buttons being made of a mixture of copper, with a small portion of zinc or brass mixed with copper, common brass being unfit for gilding. The gilding is performed by means of an amalgam of quicksilver and gold. The buttons are cut out of large wide sheets of this metal, and the shanks are affixed by solder. This work is all done by machines, the process being so rapid that one workman can prepare 12 gross in an hour. Brass buttons are simply stamped out of sheet brass, and the ornaments are struck by a die. Plated buttons are made out of copper, plated with silver, and are chiefly used in liveries and uniforms. The figures or designs upon them are formed by stamping with dies. The cheapest and commonest kind of metal buttons are those which are stamped in pewter, and chiefly used in the trimming of military jackets. They are very soft, but not being intended to bear any stress, but merely to exhibit the number of the regiment or some such figure they answer a purpose.
Upholstered buttons, or cloth covered buttons, have to undergo six different operations before they are turned out completed. The covering must first be cut out slightly larger than the size of the button. This is done by an ordinary die and mallet. The cutter, however, becomes so ex-expert, that he can punch upwards of 100 gross per day, and if he has whole cloth to cut from and lay it in several breadths deep, he can cut as high as 1000 gross daily. The next part of the button to be made is the tin mold, this being stamped out of a sheet of ordinary tin; these are produced at the rate of 600 gross a day. The little tin mold next goes to a machine, where it has a hole cut in the center for a shank to protrude. It is then called a "collet," 600 gross being the daily capacity. Paper filling must next be cut; the machine for this is so rapid that it makes 700 revolutions a minute, punching some 15,000 gross of these cardboard wads daily. Making the back is the fifth process. The "collet" is placed in a mold and then covered with a coarse cotton cloth, upon which the cardboard filling is placed. This is pressed down and forms a solid button with the shank. These can be made at the rate of 90 gross daily. Lastly the cover is placed in another machine, the back being set in the socket of a punch which descends with great force, clamping the collet tightly round the completely finished button. Fifty gross of these can be made each day on a machine. Men are employed to cut the cloth and tin, but the balance of the work on upholstered buttons is done by girls, who earn from $6 to $7 per week. Various small button-making machines have been invented, by the use of which retail merchants can in a few moments produce first class buttons of. any size from the same material as a dress, jacket or other garment is made, thus doing away with all the bother of matching shades, now so much a nuisance to lady customers. The cloth is cut in small squares and pressed over wooden molds by the machine. The cost of the machines vary from $6 to $10.
Great quantities of dress buttons are now made from potatoes. It is not generally known, but nevertheless a fact, that if the common Irish potato be treated with certain acids it becomes almost as hard as stone, and can be used for many purposes for which horn, ivory and bone are employed. This quality of the button adapts it to button-making, and a very good grade of buttons is now made from the well known tuber. The potato buttons cannot be distinguished from others save by a careful examination, and even then only by an expert, since they are colored every conceivable shade, and are every whit as good-looking as a button of bone or ivory. Their cheapness is their recommendation, and will, no doubt, be largely employed in the future.
Shoe buttons for ladies' shoes are made of button board, which is a paper material in sheets about a quarter of an inch thick. These sheets are cut in strips one-half inch in width, by the button manufacturer, each sheet making 56 strips, and from each strip 100 buttons are punched, which equals 5,600 buttons per sheet. Four hundred sheets make a ton of button board, or enough to make 2,240,000 buttons. The number of buttons required to supply the demand of shoe manufacturers may be dimly estimated when it is stated that one firm alone uses 18 tons per month, producing 40,320,000 buttons.
Pearl buttons are made of pearl shells, or what is known as natural pearl, having a clear, pearly inside of various degrees of whiteness. Some large snail-like shells are obtained in New Zealand, others of the mother-of-pearl variety are found on the coasts of Australia, while the finest come from China and the Persian Gulf. The raw shells bring all the way from 43 cents to $1 per pound in this market. In the first process of cutting out the disc for the button, the shell is held in the hand of the workman against a tubular saw, something like an ordinary gas pipe, and is very quickly sawed out. In order to do this and leave a clean and perfect edge, the saw must be kept very sharp, and it can readily be seen that the workman is called upon to use his best judgment in sawing the discs out of the shell, so as to get as many perfect ones as possible. From the first workman they go the second, who turns them in a lathe, and cuts out whatever pattern is required. Next comes boring the holes, polishing, putting on the shank where it is a button of that kind, and boxing, after which the article is ready for sale. It should be borne in mind that in all these processes each button has to be handled separately, and, though in many other lines of business wonderful improvements have been made in the direction of adapting machinery to special kinds of work, yet in the pearl button industry there has been little or no change for a hundred years. And as the tools required are of a simple kind, and the rest of the process depends upon experience and good judgment, it looks as if it was always destined to be a hand industry, and therefore peculiarly subject to outside influences which affect the cost of labor. Neither is there a fixed value to raw pearl shells, the price fluctuating daily according to supply and demand. Until the latter part of 1890 the bulk of pearl shirt buttons were made at Birmingham and London, England, while pearl dress buttons for the most part were made at Vienna, Austria. On the 1st of April, 1891, there were but seventeen pearl button factories in the United States. This increased to ninety-five in one year. Wages of button "turners" range from $18 to $23 per week, and boys and girls employed in finishing the goods are paid from $6 to $10 per week. Over 700 persons obtain a living at this industry in Newark, N. J., where formerly but twenty were employed. Factories have been located at Providence, R. L, Springfield, Mass., Philadelphia, New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit, and several other places, furnishing work for over 6,000 people at remunerative wages. None of these factories existed before the tariff of 1890 was imposed, as the American workman could not compete against wages of $3 and $4 a week earned by the Austrian button makers. The result of the tariff has been to reduce the imports of pearl buttons in 1891 to $200,000 against an amount of $3,500,000 in 1890, though a large portion of this sum was for over-importations previous to the passage of the tariff act. There are three classes of shells recognized by manufacturers out of which pearl buttons are made: 1st. The Macassar, which is a pure white, and from which "three-quarter super," "super," and "extra super" buttons are made. 2d. The Mussell, of which are manufactured the "half-fine grades." 3d. The Manilla, which produces the lowest grade goods. The Macassar is a pure, clear shell; the Mussell has a white inside with a yellowish or blackish back, while the Manilla is a dirty yellowish color throughout. Smoked pearl buttons are made of dark colored shells. The McKinly tariff on pearl buttons is 21/2 cents per line per gross and 25 per cent advalorem, equal to a straight rate of about 400 per cent. The United States consume 12,500,000 gross annually. New York manufacturers have attempted to import from Europe what is known as "pearl blanks," round discs without grooving or eyes. Except that they are not pierced or shanked they correspond in appearance with the ordinary pearl button of commerce. The manufacturers assert that these articles are not buttons, but merely "manufactures of shell," upon which the duty is only 40 per cent advalorem, claiming that the only thing known as a button in trade and common use is an article made with eyes or a shank. It was decided by the courts, however, that the ball or blank, or other special form of pearl, fashioned by skilled labor, is in fact a button, and that shanking, piercing or grooving the button is simply an auxiliary process, inasmuch as having reached such a stage of manufacture they were unsuitable for use except as buttons. As far as the tariff is now concerned a "blank" is a button.
Agate buttons used to be manufactured in England exclusively, but they have lost the industry. It came about in this way. A smart Frenchman, F. Bapterosses by name, went to England and hired to the agate button makers as a common workman, thoroughly studied the business and got possession of the secrets. He then returned to France, where with the aid of the French Government he constructed a large plant and was enabled to produce agates at half the cost of the English goods, which of course ruined the latter industry. This man accumulated an immense fortune out of the agate button business and gave employment to thousands of French workmen, and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor by his Government in recognition of his services to mankind - that is, the French part of it. He visited the Centennial in this country in 1876. Agate buttons are made of a mineral substance known as feldspar, found in the roofs of caverns at Briare, France. The raw material is taken to the factory and ground into a paste, after which it is molded into buttons and baked; they are then sewed on cards by machinery. On all of Bapterosses' goods will be found the letters "F. B." printed on the back of each card in script letters. These are the Frenchman's initials. They are the best goods made. The protective tariff on them is 25 per cent, advalorem, but there is not an agate button made in North America. There is only one other agate factory in the world, and that is in Germany, but its product is not so good, the Germans being unable to procure feldspar that is perfectly clear and white. They are branded on the back " R. C." and on inspection it will be noticed that they are not so well burned as the "F. B." goods. These specks seem to be a matter the Germans cannot overcome. The common milk-white agate buttons are termed Untitle, it being a beveled edge. The same shape is made in a pearly color, and called pearly lentille. Printed agates are printed lentilles. Caneles are agates with little canals around the edge. Bourrelet is a raised edge, and cuvette is a concave button. These are all 4-hole, and are all made both "lentille" and " pearly lentille," with the exception of the printed, which is made in lentille only. Pearly lentille is the only variety made with but two holes. These are the staple lines. In addition there are numberless fancy varieties used especially for wash goods and which have, to a certain extent taken the place of the expensive pearl button.