If your Mum is anything like my Mum then you will be finding coffee jar after coffee jar full of buttons, blue ones, brown, black, white, green, in fact all the colours of the rainbow, trouble is, often they were the only one of that colour or design. Where did all these buttons come from I have no idea, I’m guessing from that ‘spare button’ sometimes attached to the new shirt or pants that you buy from the store. But before that, where they were made, who originally made buttons and how, I wouldn’t have a clue.
This is where an article I found comes in handy. Dorset, Dorset is the answer, for over two and a half centuries Dorset had been making buttons, starting out as plain and simple and then as technology improved, getting more and more intricate and beautiful, such as what we see today. Did you know that making buttons by hand is now a hobby? It used to be a job in what was a flourishing industry, but now women (primarily) make buttons by hand as a hobby.
It was in the 17th century that button making formalised into an official industry. Who started this buttonmaking in Dorset? A gentleman by the name of Abraham Case, a retired soldier. He had watched buttonmakers at work while on active service in France and Belgium and thought to try and establish buttoncraft as an industry in England.
The village of Dorset in Shaftesbury is where Mr Case settled in 1622 with his wife and it wasn’t long before they were crafting their own buttons. They were later helped by their sons Abraham and Elias, along with a few of the local villagers. The good thing about Shaftesbury is that it is located in prime sheep farming country, so their first buttons were made from, you guessed it, horn, their first buttons were known as high tops, and the horn they used was covered in linen and then finished off with an intricate pattern of waxed threads, just to give it that bit extra and help to keep it all together.
These buttons, believe it or not, quickly became popular for use on men’s waistcoats and ladies bodices, not only in Dorset but throughout the UK. See the button was made by using a ring of sheep’s horn and then adding a piece of linen pulled into a twist to form a firm cone shape leaving the horn at the base.
FACT: When Charles I went to his execution, his silk waistcoat had Dorset high top buttons on it, reputedly crafted by Mr Case himself.
Did you know that by the time Mr Case passed away, there were 31 different button designs in circulation and that most were being made by women in their own homes in many of the surrounding villages. These amazing women would, once a week, deliver their finished products to the depot in Shaftesbury, some of these women had to walk quite a distance to get there, some 12 miles each way.
The Singleton family stood out from the rest when it came to making buttons due to their intricate skills and soon produced their own style of button which took on their name. Though the demand for Dorset buttons continued to grow and it was in 1660 that Mr Case’s sons established a second depot, this time in Bere Regis. Significant changes were to occur in the business when Mr Case’s grandson took over the business, business boomed to a never foreseen size. in 1730 there were more than 700 people employed to make buttons throughout the greater area of the county with additional depots at Wool, Sixpenny-Handley, Milbourne Stiles, Piddletrenthide and Langton Maltravers. There was even a sales office in London and an export department in Liverpool.
In the 18th Century, wire rings were being imported to use as the base for the buttons to replace the sheep’s horn. The wire was easier to work with and allowed more intricate designs as you can see below.
Dorset Honeycomb Weave,Dorset Crosswheel Weave and Dorset Basket Weave Buttons. Amazing how far buttons have come to the now plastic, metal, silver, gold and even gemstone ones we have now.
The Case family were not the only ones to be making buttons, though they were the ones to start it in the UK. There was also Robert Fisher and the Atchinson family.
FACT Children as young as six were employed to make buttons but they had to work a full month without pay while they learnt the skills needed because they ‘spoilt much thread.’ After that, the pay was one shilling a week, this amount did gradually increase as they became more proficient. A skilled child could earn as much as 10-12 shillings in a week while women would earn about two shillings a day, this was for producing about six or seven dozen buttons. Then there are the exceptions of the highly skilled workers who could produce 12 dozen buttons a day.
For women, working as buttonmakers had a certain luxury about it, in the field they would earn about nine pence a day so they were more than doubling their pay, there was also the convenience of working in the comfort of their own home. These luxuries added to the far greater comfort that these people began living in compared to their forebears. Not only was buttonmaking a job for all these women but a social outlet too, that was until …
In 1851 the death knell was sounded for handmade buttons when John Ashton demonstrated his new buttonmaking machine at the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace. It took only three years for the machine to become so widespread that the Dorset button industry collapsed virtually overnight. The machine produced buttons more quickly, it was more reliable, the buttons were all the same and, they were made at a fraction of the cost. It left thousands of workers without employment as there was no longer a demand for their handmade buttons, this luxury of working at home on a very comfortable wage was no more. Not only this but farmwork was becoming increasingly mechanised and so there was no longer a requirement for skilled labourers.
Many families then moved to Australia and America, leaving their smaller villages virtually deserted, those who could not afford to emigrate ended their days in the workhouse. What a tragic end to something that was once so grand.
The last sad remains of the Case empire were, in 1904, sold to Lady Lees who made an attempt to revive the old handmade button industry. Her business employed ladies from the local mission and they battled bravely against the market forces to get their buttons out there, known and in demand, but sadly in 1915 they had to admit defeat and the business was closed for good.
If you have an ancestor who was a part of the buttonmaking industry, there are a few websites you can check out.
http://www.sdfhs.org (Somerset and Dorset family history society)