14 August 2019

Artisan Trades: Button Making

There were a variety of buttons produced in the eighteenth-century, for different purposes, and many had specific sites of manufacture. Dorset, for example, was famed for the Dorset button, which was was made with thread and usually used on women's clothing (below).

The buttons made in Birmingham were mostly those which were used on men's clothing to adorn coats, waistcoats and sleeves, as well as link buttons being produced for shirt sleeves. Sometimes, the positioning of men's buttons served little or no functional purpose, such as on coat sleeves, which at times over the century became very large and long, so to be folded back and buttoned into place (see top image). Decorative buttons were also worn by rich and poor, and the rich did not only purchase buttons in precious metals, but favoured new fashions in steel, fine brasses, mother-of-pearl, and a multitude of other materials too. Cut steel buttons, for example, became the height of fashion in the 1770s, and the image below depicts a young man dazzling a lady with his fashionable steel buttons. These kinds of buttons were made in their thousands in Birmingham.

'Steel buttons', by William Humphrey, c. 1777.
Held at the V&A.

The first button maker mentioned in the town was Justin Amarongen or Amoronger in 1713, which was on his death so he had probably been manufacturing buttons for some years.* Amorongen is a Dutch name, so he had possibly been making buttons abroad, perhaps for French fashions, and brought his skills to Birmingham. At this time, Birmingham was just becoming known as a centre of manufacture in small decorative articles.

Fleetwood Hesketh by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1769.
Held at the Walker Art Galley, Liverpool.

Possibly the first kinds of buttons to be made in Birmingham were linked buttons, which were similar to modern cuff-links (see above). When Lady Holte shopped at Birmingham's first known toy-shop in the late 1720s, run by John Edwards, she bought a vast variety of toys but only ‘Linkᵈ’ buttons at two, five, and nine shillings per two-pair.* These may have been gifts, but women wore linked buttons too.* Edwards's 1733 inventory shows that he stocked only a small variety of buttons, including ‘stone sleeve buttons sett in silver’, but also 'mettle buttons some [twist] guilt’ so some of the buttons more associated with Birmingham were being produced.* The making of links continued through the century, and when France banned the import of English buttons they were smuggled by being concealed between cards of links.*

Agate linked buttons set in silver, similar to those described in Edwards' toy-shop in 1733.
Held by the V&A.

Throughout the century metal button manufacture was centred in Birmingham. The London Tradesman (1747) noted that metal buttons were not made in the capital but ‘mostly made in the Country’, and although Birmingham was not mentioned by name, no other button-making centre is known about.* Even in 1770, when many trades were being conducted across the West Midlands, local directories listed button makers only in Birmingham. The reason for this was probably because button making had initially been ‘a very tedious and expensive process’ but Birmingham achieved faster and cheaper production through the invention and utilisation of technologies and new processes.* New technologies included the press, which cut out basic shapes; the stamp, which formed the designs; but an ‘inconceivable dispatch was introduced’ through engines for making the moulds.* New processes included the division of labour which John Taylor honed to a fine-art in the 1750s.

In 1747 it was noted that the metal button trade required 'neither much Strength nor many Talents, nor is there much to be made of it; those who work Journey-work make little more than Labourers Wages, and some not so much’.* The introduction of these technologies and processes altered this, and by the 1770s there were some very wealthy button makers in Birmimgham.

Some button making equipment, including a press and stamp, were depicted in Bisset's Magnificent Directory in 1800, see below.

Plate R from Bisset's Magnificent Directory, 1800.

The range of buttons produced in the town was described in Sketchley's Directory in 1767:
This branch is very extensive and is distinguished under the following Heads viz. Gilt, Plated, Silvered, Lacquered, and Pinchback [pinchbeck], the beautiful New Manufacture Platina, Inlaid, Glass, Horn, Ivory, and Pearl: Metal Buttons such as Bath, Hard and Soft White, &c. there is likewise made Link Buttons in most of the above Metals, as well as of Paste, Stones, &c. in short the vast Variety of sorts in both Branches is really amazing, and we may with Truth aver that this is the cheapest Market in the World for these Articles.*

‘Lacquered’ probably meant japanned. Pinchbeck, ‘Platina’ and ‘Bath’ were fine brasses which mimicked the look of gold. ‘Inlaid’ buttons were produced with cut steel studs, such as the ones used for 'dazzling' young ladies.

Different kinds of buttons were also made for coats, called coat buttons, and waistcoats, called breast buttons. Coat buttons were generally larger than breast buttons, as seen below.

Snippet from The Sharp Family, 1779-81, by Johan Zoffany.
Held at the National Portrait Gallery.

Find Posts with Buttons and Button Makers

BUTTONS: Joseph Green's Buttons


Cut steel button.
Held at Birmingham Museum.

Pearl button from the Luckcock Collection.
Held at Birmingham Museum.

* REFERENCES ON REQUEST: including, will of Justin Amorongen, 8 April 1713, Diocese of Lichfield and Coventry Wills and Probate;  Anon, Philosophical Transactions (vol 71, part 1) (London: Lockyer, Davis and Peter Elmsly, 1781); Sheena Mason, Jewellery Making in Birmingham 1750-1995 (1998); John Edwards' Probate Inventory; John Edwards' bills; R. Campbell, The London Tradesman (London: T. Gardner, 1747); Charles Pye, Birmingham Directory; James Sketchley, Sketchley's Birmingham, Wolverhampton & Walsall Directory (1767).
Justian 'Mayronghen' buried 18 Feb 1713 St. Bartholomew, Edgbaston. He was Catholic as two probable daughters, Anna and Barbara, were married in St. Peter's Catholic Church in the 1720s. This US site is useful

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