I ran across this article while researching the history behind some of our Antique Button Mag TAKs. Looks like the appreciation of buttons as art goes way back. Evidently Charles Dickens was as guest writer for magazines back in the day. I have included in this blog several excerpts from an article in the publication HOUSEHOLD WORDS. The title of this article is “What there is in a Button”. Published Saturday, April 10, 1852. Here is a link to the entire magazine article: http://hammond-turner.com/index.php/history/charles-dickens
Birmingham England was the center of the world’s button-making. There are records showing that Birmingham was producing buttons as far back as 1166. In 1700, there were 104 button manufacturers, at a time when men were paid 7 shillings a week (35p) and children one shilling (5p) a week when they reached the ripe old age of ten years. (The pound was divided into twenty shillings or 240 pennies. It remained so until decimalization on 15 February 1971.)
The button was once Birmingham’s stock-in-trade. One 18th-century visitor commented that the folk of the town seemed to do nothing but make buttons.
“It would be no easy task,” said William Hutton in 1780, “to enumerate the infinite diversity of buttons manufactured here…” Even by the middle of the 19th century, when the trade was declining, there were some 6,000 employed in the industry in the town. They could be mother-of-pearl, silk covered, stamped and embossed, glass and shell, cut-steel and brass; they could be for a military uniform, or for high end fashion; they might simply keep your pants up. All these required different techniques. The cheaper varieties were turned on simple lathes or molded on stamping machines. The shanks were also produced mechanically and one of the machines invented for this purpose (by R. Heaton of Slancy Street) was probably one of the earliest examples of a fully self-acting contrivance capable of performing a whole series of consecutive operations without re-setting.
A few observations made by Charles Dickens.
It is a serious thing to attempt to learn about buttons at Birmingham. What buttons are we thinking of? we are asked, if we venture an inquiry. Do we want to see gilt, or silvered buttons? or electro-plated? or silk, or Florentine buttons? or mother-of-pearl, or steel, or wood, or bone, or horn buttons? All these are made here. Before we have made up our minds what to see first, we hear somebody say that button-dies are among the highest objects of the die-sinkers, and medallists' art. This not only suddenly raises our estimate of buttons, but decides us to follow the production of the button from the earliest stage—if Messrs. Allen and Moore will kindly permit us to see what their artists and workmen are doing. This is not the first time that we have had a hankering after this spectacle. When we saw electro-plating—when we saw the making of pencil-cases and trinkets—we observed and handled many steel dies, and wondered how they were made. Now we are to learn.
It was not a little surprising to see, in other manufactories, ranges of shelves, or pigeon-holes, covering whole sides of rooms, filled with dies, worth from ten shillings to twenty-four shillings each. It was rather sad, too, to be told that a large proportion of these might never again be of any use—the fashion of a few weeks, or even days, having passed away. A single die will occupy one man a month, with all his faculties in exercise; while another, with more natural aptitude, or courage, or experience, will do the same thing in two or three days. To think of one thousand in a year, produced with this effort and ability, and then to remember that button dies are among the highest productions of the art, cannot but elevate our respect for buttons very remarkably.
Before we go to the medal press, we must look round this room a little. Ranged on shelves, and suspended from nails, are casts of limbs, of whole figures, of draperies, of foliage,—of everything that is pretty. This art comes next to that of the sculptor; and it requires much of the same training. When partially-draped figures are to be represented, the artist engraves the naked figure first, and the drapery afterwards; and to do this well, he must have the sculptor's knowledge of anatomy. He must be familiar with the best works of art, because something of a classical air is required in such an article as a medal.
Think of the varieties of horses and dogs, besides the game! For crest buttons, the lions and other animals are odd and untrue enough; but, out of the range of heraldry, all must be perfect pictures. And then, the word "pictures" reminds us of the exquisite copies of paintings which the die-sinker makes. Here is the "Christus Consolator" of Scheffer reproduced, with admirable spirit and fidelity, within a space so small, that no justice can be done to the work unless it is viewed through a magnifying glass.
Here are long rooms, large rooms, many rooms, devoted to the making an article so small as to be a very name for nothingness. "I don't care a button," we say: but, little as a button may be worth to us, one single specimen may be worth to the manufacturer long days of toil and nights of care, and the gain or loss of thousands of pounds. We can the better believe it for having gone through those rooms. There we see range beyond range of machines—the punching, drilling, stamping machines, the polishing wheels, and all the bright and compact, and never-tiring apparatus which is so familiar a spectacle in Birmingham work-rooms. We see hundreds of women, scores of children, and a few men; and piles of the most desultory material that can be found anywhere, one would think—metal plates, coarse brown pasteboard, Irish linen, silk fringes, and figured silks of many colours and patterns.
There is surely something charming in seeing the smallest things done so thoroughly, as if to remind the careless, that whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well. We no longer wonder as we did, that the button branch is one of the most advanced in the business of the die-sinker and medalist. Here we had better stop, though we have not told half that might be related on the subject of buttons. It is wonderful, is it not? that on that small pivot turns the fortune of such multitudes of men, women, and children, in so many parts of the world; that such industry, and so many fine faculties, should be brought out and exercised by so small a thing as the Button.
With the Holidays right around the corner, we hope that you will consider giving the gift of Antique Art with the upcycled functionality of the Mag TAK. Wear A Bit Of History!