Chapter One: Essential Data Concerning China Buttons
by Lillian Smith Albert and Jane Ford Adams
Chapter one details the invention of the china button. To summarize: In 1840 in England Richard Prosser received a patent for a new process to shape a ceramic button. From Guidelines for Collecting China Buttons: “The material which Prosser used was not potter’s clay; it was, instead, a very fine, dry powder… The method consisted of placing the powder in a steel die of the desired shape and compressing it to about one-fourth its bulk. This operation produced perfectly shaped buttons ready for the kiln. Moreover, production was rapid and firing loss small.”
A quote from Thomas Prosser, brother of the patent holder is also included in the Guidelines: “The number which one woman can make of these buttons is almost incredible. Twenty-five buttons are often made in one minute, but the usual rate is from 12 to 18 per minute, the week round. The price paid for making is one cent per gross, at which rate the earnings of one woman vary from $3 to $4 1/2 per week. Twenty thousand gross of buttons have been made per week.”
Doing the math, labor costs for 2 million, eight hundred eighty thousand buttons, the week’s production, would have been $200. Contrast this rate with the traditional labor-intensive process of hand shaping and firing fine porcelain buttons, and the financial success of the humble china button is easily understood.
Production began at Mintons in England (1840-1846); Charles Cartlidge & Co. in Greenpoint, Long Island (1848-1856); at the factory of Jean Felix Bapterosses first in Paris and then south at Briare (1843-1900’s); and in Germany under the brands R. C. and A.R.
China buttons sold for as little as 2c a dozen for plain, and 3c a dozen for decorated. The buttons came on cards that could be cut to give the purchaser the number of buttons needed.
It was Jean-Felix Bapterosses who aggressively dominated the industry. In 1844 he substantially increased production with a patent for a machine to strike 500 buttons at once. With a formula based on ground feldspar, unique to his area, the first shipment of what he termed “agate buttons,” took place in September of 1845. In March of 1847 he had added lustered buttons to his production line and in the same year patented a kiln making it possible to fire buttons in 15 minutes. He continued to be innovative with the introduction of colored buttons and by 1849 was producing a full range of styles and colors at the rate of 1,400,000 buttons per day. He employed 150 people in the factory and 400 women outside the factory to put the buttons on cards. By 1850 he succeeded in manufacturing, firing and shipping his buttons to be carded, in less than 25 minutes.
A complete description of the manufacturing process of china buttons is included in Large Factories of France by Julian Turgan, published in Paris in 1865 and found online in French. Matthew Brown has translated the text and it can be downloaded here: Translation