I make no secret of the fact that I love old buttons! They have held a fascination for me ever since I was allowed to play with the buttons in my grandmother’s button box when I was a young child growing up in Birmingham. I was enthralled with that tin of buttons. The colours! The shapes! The textures! The buttons were coins and counters to play with, mosaics to make pictures with, conversation starters and little treasures. That tin was the start of many a game and many a story.
I inherited not only grandma's buttons, but also my mum's massive collection of sewing related items. It took a while to sort through that little lot, believe me! She made most of her own clothes right through to the 1980s and some of those buttons instantly call to mind a particular dress or coat. Most of the fabric and trim I donated to the wonderful local charity Rag Tag & Textile here in Skye. But I kept the majority of those fascinating buttons! They belong to a time when everything was precious and saved for another day - when it could be recycled and put to use again. Press studs, toggles, the odd bead, bits of lace and trim, were all snipped from old garments and popped in the tin to be used again. My mum's haberdashery collection even included the odd garter clip! There are buttons of all sizes, shapes and materials - mother of pearl, wood, horn, metal, celluloid, lucite, other plastics and glass. I love them all!
I am still learning about them, and discovering their place in the history of button making. I have continued to add to my collection and am eternally grateful for the additions that have come from customers and friends – each horde offering new treasures. I love to use them in my jewellery and handcrafted greeting cards. Continuing the tradition of recycling!
Some of the buttons in my grandmother’s tin would have been made in Birmingham where I grew up. For many years the British button industry was based in Birmingham, making me feel that I have another personal link to the buttons that I love!
My Grandma Beatrice was born in 1891 in the Saltley area of Birmingham. Her mother’s side of the family were mostly employed in the brass industry, living in a 'back to back' terraced house around a communal court yard. It would have been a hard life, in what could only be described as slum conditions:- dirty, noisy, smelly, over crowded. Piped water was only available to those who could afford it. There was no electricity in the city until 1882 – lighting was by gas lamp.
Birmingham was known as the City of a Thousand Trades. The metal industry in Birmingham made everything from cutlery, nails and screws, to guns and tools, toys and locks. The city is also famous for making jewellery and buttons. Two of my favourite things! Most of this industry took place in a myriad of small workshops, cottage industries jostling for space amongst the' back to back' houses, markets, slaughter houses and railway works.
Charles Dickens wrote about button making in Birmingham. In the article What There is in a Button published in the weekly journal Household Words No 107 April 10, 1852, Dickens gives the reader a very clear indication not only of the extent of the button industry in Birmingham at that time, but also the variety of buttons made, and the processes involved. OK its a long article - but its well worth reading! It makes it perfectly clear that the industry was reliant on female labour. Even when more machines
were introduced into the manufacturing process in 1865, around 6,000 people were employed in the British button industry- most of them women and young girls. Button manufacture relied on cheap labour, and as many as 14 women and girls could be involved in the making of a single button!
And guess what? Amongst my family history research, I learned that some of my family had actually made buttons!
My great great grandmother Ellen (one of 12 children) is recorded on the 1851 census aged 16, contributing to the family income with her employment as a ‘tin button finisher’.Two of her sisters were also working in the button industry:- Elizabeth aged 25 and Eliza (just 9 years old) are both described as ‘horn button finishers’.
Shell Pearl Buttons
It wasn't just metal and horn buttons that were made in Birmingham. They made everything there, including textile covered buttons, celluloid buttons and shell pearl buttons. Some of my favourite buttons in my collection are those made of mother of pearl. They include tiny white pearl buttons through to the beautiful carved dark shell buttons that I have often used in my jewellery.
Birmingham was particularly famous for its manufacture of shell pearl buttons. The fragile shells were imported from Singapore, Australia, the South Pacific, Malaysia and the Americas, and must have seemed very exotic! The shell button manufacture itself however was far from glamorous. It was dusty, dangerous, and produced a lot of waste! So much so that vast pits were dug to bury it.
I now appreciate that precious old buttons are not just pretty and colourful. They are little pieces of history, little prompts to discover more about the past. In my case they offer a link to my family’s history in a way I hadn’t realised as a child.