The Australian pearling industry started in the 1850s at Shark Bay, West Australia, then in Torres Straits in 1868. Sixteen firms were operating from Thursday Island by 1877, and nearly 400 luggers plus more than 3500 people fishing for shell in the waters off Broome by 1910. In 1890 the Torres Strait was supplying over half the world’s demand for pearl shell. The shell was sold in large quantities to England and America, and later Japan, for the manufacture of button and buckles. It was worth anywhere between 79 to 400 pounds a ton. This created a boom time for the pearling areas with large numbers of European, Asian, Islander, Koorie and Chinese people arriving to work in the industry. This in turn had a terrible effect on local islander populations with up to a 50% reduction in population from 1870 to 1900.
Historically the industry relied on exploitation. At Shark Bay aboriginal people were forced to work (even kidnapped a.k.a. “blackbirded”) without wages to collect shell. Later they were required to dive without equipment into deep waters for shell. The working conditions were very poor and dangerous. Once diving suits were invented, divers, who were often Japanese indentured workers, were required to spend hours at a time under water with danger from shark attack, poor weather and the ‘bends’. The mortality rate may have been as high as 50% for divers.
After Federation, the ‘White Australia Policy’ restricted the immigration of cheap and ‘expendable’ divers. In 1912 twelve British ex-navy divers brought out to work in the industry at Broome. However, with the death of one, the paralysis of another and a bad case of “the bends” in a third, all withdrew from the pearling fleet. After this, Broome was made an exception to the ‘White Australia’ policy.
The industry almost stopped during World War 1, as its workers enlisted and shell prices crashed. Most pearling vessels lay idle.
There were other pressures on the industry. As early as 1934, an overseas expert was warning that pearl prices were dropping due to reduced demand. Fresh water shell and casein were in competition for use in button manufacturing, with casein being considerably cheaper. Despite the hopes of politicians and pearlers, previous over-harvesting as well as high production costs slowed recovery of the industry after the war. There were issues with availability of divers: some wanted to reduce the use of ‘foreign’ divers, whilst others were claiming the industry was reliant on them. During the 1950s plastic buttons and buckles largely replaced those made of pearl shell. A new pearling industry would evolve based on cultured pearl with pearl-shell as a side-line, the opposite to that historically where pearls were the side-line.
History of Attempted Local Pearlshell Button Industry and Tariffs
As early as the 1880s there were several small scale attempts to start pearl stud and button factories in Sydney, but a lack of experienced workers was a problem. These attempts lasted up to several years in duration, but were small scale.
Around 1906, with the shelling industry suffering the effects of depletion in the shallower waters of Torres Straits, the calls for a local processing industry started to help the industry. Places suggested included Sydney, Brisbane, Broome, Darwin and Perth. Unfortunately, many proponents of the idea were writers, scientists, or parties with vested interests such as pearlers, unions and local polititians, not economists or experienced button factory owners. The proponents claimed things such as ” the factory would be a great success, for … the Commonwealth would be able to manufacture at a far less cost (than those) who have to first import their shell.” It was also claimed that the plant was “not at all expensive”, and pointed to places such as New Caledonia where such a factory existed. Whilst the plant, in the pre-automated days, may have been inexpensive, it would still have required some expense to import it, and to train staff. There was also the fact that labour costs were relatively low in places where the industry prospered. For example, In centres such as Britain and America where the industry was successful, workers’ advocates complained that workers, including women and children, worked long, lowly paid hours in the button factories. Tellingly, the proponents always suggested, or demanded, or pleaded, that the Government should subsidy the setting up of such a factory, overlooking the fact that if it were likely to be profitable, private industry would do so.
The shell harvesting industry had crashed during WW1 as the labour force left to enlist, and shell prices dropped. Post war, it rebuilt and prices for shell rose again. The shell button industry was suggested as a means to provide employment to the injured soldier, who could “also receive buttons to mount on cards at home .. at his leisure.” A Government grant from the Repatriation scheme suggested to start this.
The Great Depression caused a ‘National Emergency’ to be declared in 1929. To try to protect local industry, import tariffs were raised. The following year, further taxes were imposed on ‘luxury items’, which included buttons. A series of inquires into altering tariffs started in August that year. In September they considered buttons, buckles, claps and slides. O. C. Rheuben, of the Herrman Company, claimed the change proposed would cover ¢150,000 of the £500,00 worth of these articles being imported in 1930 duty free. He claimed that in consequence he could increase his employees up from 22 part time, to 120 workers. The changes to the relevant tariffs were approved. A year later the firm’s output had increased by 400%, and a German engineer was coming out to oversee the installation of new machinery.
In 1929 two or four (depending on which report you read) Viennese experts came to Australia to help start the ‘Australian Pearlbutton Manufacturing Co. Ltd.’ This started production on the 1st May 1931 with 24 hands. This enterprise by Burns Philip was apparently encouraged by the Federal Government. By 1931 it was employing 40 people and by 1932, eighty people. However, the tariff protecting the industry was claimed to be effectively 1100%. The Sydney Chamber of Commerce estimated this would cost approximately £25,000 annually to the Sydney shirt and pyjama makers, the main consumers of pearl-shell buttons. They said the industry was “ill-conceived” with claims that 500 people could be employed “ridiculous”. At that time most shell buttons consumed in Sydney were made in Japan from Australian trochus shell, so that to stop importing Japanese buttons in favour of locally made would cause loss to the shell exporters. They were also concerned about the possibility of retaliation by Japan in reducing importation of produce such as Australian wool.
In 1932 a Northern Territory politician insisted that a “properly protected” industry could supply 80% of the world’s finished product. An opposing politician claimed that he was told “a German came to Australia with a proposition to make buttons. A company (Burns Philp) fell for it and financed him. His backers were now trying to use the tariff to recover their losses.” Although this was possibly just gossip, it is true that despite a 15-25% tariff on pearl-shell buttons, by 1938 the Pearlshell Company was in liquidation, losing £28.000 per year. It would be merged with the successful enterprise, G. Herring Pty Ltd. being run by the Ney brothers, Marshall and Cornelius.
By 1935 there were apparently 3 pearl-shell factories in Sydney, the PearlButton Manufacturing Co, G. Herring, and Pearl Products Manufacturing Company, one employing only four people. Herrman & Co were possibly who were referred to in a statement by a shell expert: “some years ago a company was formed in Sydney to manufacture buttons. The quality was excellent but the costs of production uncompetitive … recently it turned its attention to manufacturing composition buttons.”
As early as 1909 a newspaper reported the production of “mock pearl buttons” made from milk. The plastic industry had been growing before WW2, and was now booming. It was reported in 1951 that MOP exports had steadily earned less since 1948 (1948: £558,000 c.f. 1951: £198,000). Due to low production and the high prices of shell buttons since the war synthetic button manufacturers in the US had captured the market. Despite that, on the 8th March that year ‘Pearl Shell Industries Pty. Ltd’ was formed at Smith’s Creek, near Cairns, primarily to make buttons. A. G. R. Griffths, managing director of General plastics, was one of the directors. Fully automatic plant had been ordered from New York costing many thousands of pounds. General Plastics was to perform the rumbling and chemical polishing, as well as the sale and distribution of the buttons.
(In September 1953, a MOP manufacturing plant, with a foreman and 9 operatives, was being advertised for sale as a going concern with profits of £40-60 per week. Apparently the space was required for extensions by the seller. The advertisement didn’t state who the company was or where they were located.)
In November of 1953 the Cairns factory had reportedly more equipment on the way from Germany. Unfortunately, the era of pearl-shell buttons was over and the business went into liquidation in 1954. It survived with another owner only until around 1956. Despite this, local unionists were still “demanding” a shell processing factory to provided employment and cheaper articles!
Parsons, Thompson, and Co, Sydney
Mr Parsons was likely Charles Tilbury Parsons, who lived in Surry Hills at that time. He would leave Sydney for Gosford, so the firm became as Messrs. Thompson & Co. Mr George Simeon Thompson (1852-1938) moved to Granville. He was only located there for some months, as later in the year he had moved back to Sydney. He must have continued for some years, as he was advertising his pearl shell studs and buttons in Melbourne in 1889.
The Cumberland Mercury, 25th April 1885, page 8.
There is a collection presented by Mrs J. Fagen to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences that may be linked to Thompson & Co. due to the date of 1885. Alternatively, it may be linked to Mr Ackman of Bennetts Chambers, Sydney (see story below).
Mr. Ackman, Bennetts Chambers, Sydney
Mr Samuel Ackman ( or Ackmann) was a London born business man. He started as a storekeeper in Melbourne, was for a time a money lender in Ballarat, then moved to Sydney around 1875 to run an auctioneers firm ‘Harris and Ackmann’ amongst many other activities! Around 1879 (according to newspaper reports) he established a pearl button and stud factory. He died in 1922, aged 78 years.
John Ward, Brisbane
Another early manufacturer was John Ward from Birmingham with years of experience in MOP trade, who operated in Brisbane from at least 1884 to 1889. He used Torres Strait shell to make studs, links, fancy and dress buttons.
Australian Button Industry Ltd.
This button manufacturing business that never eventuated.
There are some great images of this company’s early products available on the website of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Unfortunately, the images are copyrighted, but links will be provided to them. They are worth checking.
The establishment of a pearl button industry here was hampered by a lack of local expertise. In 1929 two or four (reports vary) Viennese experts came to Australia to help start the ‘Australian Pearlbutton Manufacturing Co. Ltd.’ at 16 Foster Street, Surry Hills, Sydney. It was also referred to just as the ‘Pearlbutton Manufacturing Co.’
This enterprise by Burns Philip was encouraged by the Federal Government. By 1931 it was employing 40 people and by 1932, eighty people. In 1935 it was also listed at 297 Rae Street, North Fitzroy, Melbourne.
In 1931 The Technological Museum (which became MAAS) held an exhibition of the pearl-shell industry:
For images of this company’s products donated to the MAAS in 1933 see:
The company applied successfully for increased duties on imported pearl buttons, much to the dismay of clothing manufacturers, who claimed that “only pearl-shell buttons suitable for use in the finishing of high class goods” were being made locally, not the cheaper ones needed for “working shirts, cheap pyjamas, and similar goods” They faced higher costs in manufacturing clothing to protect the infant pearl button industry. Despite the tariff, by 1938 the company was in liquidation. It was bought and merged into ‘G.Herring (Aust.) Pty. Ltd.’
Pearl Products Manufacturing Co., Campsie
This company was registered on 16th January 1933 at 33 North Parade, but changed its name to Actex Hardware Co. and moved to Undercliffe on 20th February 1939.
Laurence Ryder Parkinson (1915-2008) was a manufacturer. His initial partners were Cyril Alleyne Hindson ( 1912-2004) and William Hosie, who both left the business by September the next year. They were replaced by Laurence’s father, George Dobson Parkinson (1885-1948), a builder, and Harold Moran. As the name change suggests, the company produced hardware, at first plastic then later metal as well, such and door handles. By 1967 they were known as Acetex-Goal. The company is deregistered.
Pearl Shell Products, Sydney
Malaby Chappell, Cleveland William Anderson (1917-2012) and Victor Marden (1920- ) formed a partnership under the name of ‘Pearl Shell Products’ in December 1946. By May 1947 Chappell had left, then in 1948 so had Marden.
Roland Clifford Latter (1919-2000) joined around 1948 and continued the business after Anderson left in October 1950.
The article below comes from Fisheries Newsletter of March 1950, when Latter and Anderson were working together:
Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), 1st April 1950 page 29.
I can find no further record of the business.
The pearl-shell industry, which had stopped during WW2 would not recover this time, except for a small market for high end buttons. Broome would reinvent itself around the business of cultured pearls.
World History of Pearl Shell Buttons
You would be forgiven for thinking that the history of pearl-shell buttons begins and ends with the industry in Muscatine, Iowa. Whilst this trade was important, the story is of course, much older and larger than that.
Possibly the oldest shell button found is around 5000 years old from Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. Some prehistoric examples were carved and pierced so that they could be sewn as ornaments onto clothing.
The banning by the United Kingdom parliament of the importation of pearl buttons in the late 18th century lead to a boom in their production in Birmingham, which was already an established button production centre.
Pearl-shell buttons production was labour intensive, with multiple (up to 80 for fancy items) steps that required manual handling, even after the introduction of machinery into production. The shell used was imported from Australia, the South Pacific, Malaysia and the Americas. A report in 1866 into the Birmingham button trade included a section on pearl-shell. See https://hammond-turner.com/index.php/component/content/article/14-sample-data-articles/125-the-birmingham-button-trade-part-6?Itemid=435
There must have been an industry in Europe as the father of the trade in America, John Frederick Boepple, was an immigrant German button maker with experience in making shell buttons. Due to high importation tariffs , he moved to America in 1887 to avail himself of the plentiful freshwater mussel shells to be harvested from the Mississippi River. Luckily for him, tariffs were introduced in 1890 making pearl shell buttons imported into America expensive. From small beginnings in 1891, a boom industry evolved with a peak of 49 shell button factories and many small backyard units making and supplying blanks. By 1905, Muscatine and neighbouring regions were producing around 37% of the worlds buttons. Muscatine was “the Pearl Button Capital of the World”. Production peaked in 1916, with thousands employed in the industry and millions of dollars earned. However, over harvesting, interruption by WW2, competition from overseas , changing fashions and the rise of plastic contributed to the industry’s decline by the 1950s. Today, plastic buttons are made in Muscatine.
NB: Small amount of stud buttons were made from American fresh water shell from as early as 1802, according to a report that year. The fresh water shell that inspired Boepple went in search of 20 years later were probably sent from Illinois in 1872 by William Salter to Germany and reached Boepple’s father, although at the time the potential was not realised.
Shell was exported from Australia from the 1850s until the 1950s to England, America and later, Japan. When Japan was occupied after WW2 from 1945-1952, General Douglas MacArthur was entrusted to revive Japan’s economy. Buttons were among the products made and exported to the world. The words “Occupied Japan” or “Made in Occupied Japan” were required to be printed on products.
Australian shell was also exported to Israel for the production of exquisite, hand-carved, “Bethlehem Pearl Buttons”. The production of shell buttons in Australia occurred intermittently from 1880, but was never significant. See the Pearl Sell page of this blog for more on this topic.According to the British Shell Club, pearl buttons are being produced today in America, China, Indian, Japan and the Philippines from a variety of species.