Button collectors, like all collectors, are varied in their focus, but most share an interest in the where, when and what their buttons were made a of. So although this is an Australian focused blog, the history of the industry in other countries is still of interest.
Also known as Tagua nut, ivory nut or vegetable ivory.
If you have read my page on tailors’ buttons you’ll know that they were commonly made of “vegetable ivory”.
This very hard, white substance is in the main sourced from the seeds of a variety of South American palm trees, Phylelphous macrocarpa, although some other varieties from other parts of the world are used. These particularly grow around the Magdelena River in Colombia. The first export statistics available from Colombia date from 1840, and from Ecuador from 1865. In Columbia the export industry declined in the 1920s and had finished by 1935. A remnant industry for button production and souvenirs remained in Eucador. Since 1990 an initiative to promote sustainable rainforest industries has increased production.
Historically, it was claimed that Tagua nut was made of hardened albumen but this was in error. According to an article in the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations document repository the ” endosperm of tagua, the vegetable ivory, is composed of large, thick-walled cells, whose main components are two long-chain polysaccharides – mannan A (45-48%) and mannan B (24-25%), cellulose (6-7.5%)”.
The palm tree was first described by Europeans in 1798. It was also noted at that time that the locals carved objects such as toys, walking stick knobs and reels from the kernels. The trunk is short, rarely higher than 6 foot, from which grow a tuft of large, feathery leaves. The fruit occur in clusters around the base of the leaves on short stalks. The palms have male and female individuals, with only the females producing the nuts. The fruit is 25-30 inches in circumference and has a woody covering with 3 to 5 lobes, within each lobe occur 6 to 9 large, hard, smooth, oval to spherical seeds of a grayish-brown colour. These are the “ivory nuts”. The fruit take about 2 years to ripen, and then fall to the forest floor.
The “Penny Cylopedia” printed in England in 1843 stated that vegetable ivory was already a significant material used by button manufacturers.
On 12th August, 1843 the Indiana State Sentinel reported that ” the English are manufacturing a variety of fancy articles out of the nut”. Do not believe the oft quoted “fact” that taugua nut buttons were invented by the Austrians in 1859. Their own local industry, perhaps. The Historical Dictionary of Ecuador by George M. Lauderbaugh states that along with cacao and sugar, in 1835 Ecuador’s other main exports were “Panama hats, balsa and tagua (ivory) nuts used in the production of buttons” which means the trade started earlier. The Cultural History of Plants by Sir Ghillean Prance,and Mark Nesbitt states that “Sir William Hooker may have first introduced vegetable ivory to England in 1826” although of course that does not mean it was used in manufacturing that early.‘Vegetable ivory’ buttons were being imported into Sydney and advertised by 1846. Although it is not stated as to where they were manufactured, it was likely to be Britain.
In Around 1847 thirty tons were shipped to the USA. Birmingham button makers started using the nuts around 1858, and the cost was much less than for real ivory. Perhaps 8-10 thousand gross were being made per month in that city. Their value increased from $20 to $75-80 per ton over the decade from 1866.
From “the Resources, Products, and Industrial History of Birmingham and the Midland Hardware District, edited by S. Timmins, 1866; it suggests the industry became mainstream some time between 1856-1866.
In 1913 it was reported that the principle markets for Tagua nuts were London, Hamburg, Le Havre and New York. From there they were distributed to factories in Southern Germany, Italy, London, and Birmingham. In 1920 approximately 20% of buttons used in the USA were of vegetable ivory.
The nuts were dried from 3-6 weeks then the hard shells removed in revolving drums. They were then cut into slabs, soaked to prevent cracking, then turned on lathes into button blanks. They were drilled, shaped and polished. Although the whiteness of the nut yellows in air, it may be dyed and polished. For example, sulphuric acid turns the nut to magenta. Other chemicals, such as potassium iodate and mercury chloride could be used.
The buttons continued to be favoured for suits and coats until World War 2, when they became unavailable then plastic started to take over. It remains in use, but only in small quantities, which is a shame as it is a sustainable option.
See also ‘Leather’ below.
Leather is a flexible and durable product made by tanning animal skin/hide, usually cattle but also other (and unexpected) animals. The making of leather buttons started early on in Australia’s history. An article boasted of various new products being made in the colony of South Australia including …
Plaited Leather Buttons
While plaited leather buttons were used before this time, they seem to become more popular after WW2, particularly on sports/tweed coats and jackets, borrowing perhaps from military uniforms. A local industry sprang up to meet the demand. Many European and Jewish immigrants set up in the ‘rag trade’ at this time. Some would use outworkers to hand plait strips of leather into buttons in their homes that would be collected, dyed, varnished and carded to be sold to shops and tailors. They were also made by “crippled children”.
Pearl Shell Buttons
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 steps (up to 80 for fancy items!) that required a lot of 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 was an industry in Europe as shown by the fact that 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. Buttons are still made in Muscatine, but nowadays of plastic.
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.
Fresh water shells were imported to Germany until WW2. Quoting from the B.I.O.S. report dated 1/1/1947 about the factory of Franz Muller, Amorbach in Bavaria: “The stock of shells was found to be very large, the estimated weight being 50 tons. The type of shell was Mississippi Sand Shells and Nigger Heads.”
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.
It is not always easy to date these buttons, but the cards can help. Some actually have a copyright date printed on them. Knowledge of when a given company existed gives you the era. You might notice that on some cards the buttons are attached by staples, or in the case of the shanked buttons, a fine strand of wire threaded through the shanks behind the card. By looking at many cards of many eras, I suspect this occurred from the 1940s in America, with cards from the 1930s and earlier having sewn on buttons. In Australia staples were not used until the mid 1960s, and even until the 1980s many buttons were sewn onto cards. (Did the US have better/earlier automisation?) Cards of pearl buttons “Made in Occupied Japan” (i.e. 1945-1952) show that during that era the style number, size in lignes and sometime quantity of buttons per card (in case you couldn’t count?) were printed on the card. This was also the era that prices started to be printed (around 10-15 cents per card.)
According to The Daily Gazette (new York) in 2017, “Harvey Chalmers & Sons made a splash in the industry in 1911 when it was the first button maker to advertise in women’s magazines and newspapers. The company became the biggest manufacturer of pearl buttons in the world with sales offices in New York and London.”
Identifying one plastic from another is difficult without a handy gas spectrometer, and some plastics are chameleons, able to mimic other materials as well as each other. A useful guide to plastic identification is http://www.thebuttonmonger.com/content/button_identifying.pdf
Bakelite, or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, was the first synthetic plastic. It was developed in 1907 by Dr Leo Baekeland working on a substitute for shellac, and patented in 1909. It was made from phenol and formaldehyde with added fillers such as wood or asbestos fibres. As a result, mainly dark, sombre colours were made to cover up the appearance of the fillers. According to ‘An insight into Plastics’ by BTR Nylex Ltd., the plastics industry started in Australia around 1917 with buttons moulded from imported phenol-formaldehyde powder being among the first products manufactured. (Editor’s note: This was probably done by Berthold Herrman. See the General Plastics page.) Moulded Plastics (Australasia) Pty. Ltd. made ‘Duperite’ products from 1932. These included buttons for the Australian Military Forces between 1940-44.
In 1925 the British Cyanides Company (whose trademark was a beetle) developed a thiourea-formaldehyde moulding powder which was marketed from 1928 as Beetle powder. In Australia, Duperite branded products, and others, were made from this imported powder. This type of plastic allowed the introduction of previously unavailable colours, and are mottled or marbled.
In 1927 the American Catalin Corporation of New York City acquired the patents for Bakelite and developed Catalin plastic. Catalin is what most “Bakelite” jewellery is actually made of. It was also made from phenol-formaldehyde, but in a 2 stage process without the use of fillers. It was available in clear and solid colours, as well as light, bright options that were not possible with Bakelite. It oxidises over time so that clear and white objects yellow.
Formaldehyde was also used with casein protein from milk to make a plastic. The first French/German version, called Galalith (meaning milk stone), was developed from 1899. It was successfully made in England from 1914 under the name Erinoid. Production slowed during the war as milk was needed for food. Casein was favoured for button production because it wasn’t flammable like celluloid and could be produced in many colours. It also polished up to a beautiful luster. A newspaper report from December 1929 stated that ‘no buttons were (being) manufactured in Australia.’ However, this is incorrect, as the Herrman’s were producing casein buttons in the 1920s (see the General Plastics page). In 1935 at the North Coast National Exhibition, casein buttons, products of Norco, were displayed. In the collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, is a casein formaldehyde button made in 1944 by General Plastics.
The Pemberton Post (WA), 5th November 1937 page 5.
If the blood was treated in the same way as casein buttons were made, i.e. by treating the blood with formaldahyde, I don’t image they could give you an infection. This was probably just an attempt to make shoppers ‘buy British”.
According to Wikipedia: hemacite was an pre-plastic made from sawdust and the blood of slaughtered animals treated with chemicals and pressure. It was invented by Dr W. H. Dibble of New Jersey in the late 19th century, and was widely used.
If you’ve perused the vintage Beutron advertising, you’ll remember that In the late 1940’s they marketed ‘Irridel’ buttons that matched the colour of lighter or darker fabric due to their opalescent nature. A newspaper article showed the origin of this type of plastic;
So, many years before Beutron used it, Irridel was a type of American plastic used to make jewellery. Beutron imported the formula to Australia to make the buttons. The name borrows from the earlier “Iridill”, the name of a type of glass produced by the Fenton Art Glass Company from 1908. This was the glass that became known as ‘Carnival glass’. It was a very successful product for Fenton, with popularity peaking in the 1920’s and waning into the 1930s.
A useful plastic for making buttons is polymethyl metyacrylate, better known by the trade names of Lucite, Perspex, Plexiglas, Acrylite, and others, but more easily referred to just as ‘acrylic’.
Developed in the 1920s and first marketed in the 1930s by several companies, it would be widely used during WW2 for airplane turrets, windscreen and the like. Du Pont had licensed this new product to jewellery manufacturers early on, which is why the name Lucite (their trade name) is used generically for acrylic buttons. It proved a valuable and flexible product, highly suitable for the manufacture of jewellery, beads, buttons and many other products. Although naturally clear, it could be coloured, clear, translucent or opaque. It was lighter than glass, strong, and did not yellow with age. Its peak popularity was post WW2 into the 1960s, although it is still used. Vintage plastics with embedded glitter or other objects are usually acrylic. I have buttons of the ‘Moonstone’ acrylic variety, with a slightly greasy feel and a glossy, glowing, variable colour tone.
Plaskon was developed in 1931 by the Toledo Scale Company as a lighter material than metal to make their scales from. It was made from urea formaldehyde with cellulose as a filler, as was great for making white products.
For more about Beetle powder: http://plastiquarian.com/?page_id=14240
According to https://www.popoptiq.com/types-of-buttons
“Polyester is a very common material for buttons because it is a type of plastic that makes it perfect for all types of buttons. Polyester is inexpensive, looks great, and can be dyed a variety of colors. Sometimes, red carbonate is added to polyester to make buttons that have the pearlescent sheen of shell buttons, but the truth is, polyester buttons offer so many options that it is all but impossible not to find something you love when you choose buttons made of this material.
Polyester buttons make it easy to button and unbutton a dress or blouse, and if you choose polyester buttons, they can even mimic other button materials, which means you are always guaranteed to get what you love without paying a fortune. Polyester buttons can be made to look like wood, pearl, or any other type of button, thanks to their versatility and the fact that they come in so many designs and colors.
For most non-professionals, therefore, it is virtually impossible to look at a button and determine whether it is made of polyester, wood, or any other type of button-making material. Most polyester buttons vary greatly when it comes to shading, luster, and brightness, so they can be light or dark, formal or casual, large or small, meaning you are always guaranteed to get something spectacular in the end.”
According to https://www.sbs-zipper.com/blog/resin-buttons-vs-plastic-buttons-understanding-the-differences/ the term ”polyester” most commonly refers to a plastic sub-type called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Wikipedia tells me that polyesters are a family of plastics that can be both themosetting or thermoplastic, which doesn’t help with hot needle testing.
According to an article in the Pioneer Button Club, July 2018, polyester has taken over from acrylics for high end buttons being produced today. The author also bemoaned the lack of a “foolproof, non-destructive way to tell acrylic from polyester 100% of the time.”
From the 1947 ”German Button Industry” BIOS report:
” A considerable stock of Anras Sheet material was found which was a Casein substitute material made from potato starch by Messrs. Anras Combine at Veendam. Production of Anras buttons was similar to normal Casein production but the material was very hard and could not be polished with a chemical polish.” The report then details how both Casein and Anras buttons were polished in five stages that took 4-6 days!
The only thing I found was this reference, from an article in 1934.
Shell (apart from pearl-shell)
Wood (including nuts)
In America several companies developed a way to make household novelty products, including buttons, from wooden composition material that could be easily moulded. This saved the time and expense needed for hand carving. These include Syroco, Burwood, ANN and GAP. However, according to “The Big Book of Buttons”, the origins go back to the 1850s when hardened wood (bois dura) buttons were made in France. These consisted of sawdust and albumen, coloured bronze or jet black, with the buttons usually decorated with cameo style heads. Then in the 1880s, during the craze for metal picture buttons, several manufacturers made picture buttons of pressed or moulded wood composition. The composition was pulped or powered wood with fillers and binders. You could achieve more detailed designs with this material than by pressing designs on wood. Albert Parent and Company made good quality buttons of this type. They have a metal back plate marked with the company name (AP&C Paris).