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Button making and carding

Button carding

The Button Making Trade Board was established on 13 February 1920 and covered the manufacture of buttons in all materials (including metal, wood and newly introduced forms of plastic) and the 'carding' of buttons (sewing individual buttons on to sheets of card for distribution and sale). Carding of buttons, pins or other fasteners was often sub-contracted to home workers and was an area of work particularly prone to 'sweating'.

The series of trade board papers in the Trades Union Congress archive includes two files relating to the Button Making Trade Board. As part of the Modern Records Centre's 'Sweated trades' digitisation project, we have made a selection of these documents available online, including the items highlighted below. Some additional items can be found through our digital collection.

Illustration: button carding by home workers, cropped version of a photograph included in 'Sweated Industries', handbook of the Daily News exhibition, 1906.


Wage rates:

Wages paid to female workers in the button trade, Halesowen, 1912

Included in a list of wage rates for women in four trades in the Black Country, compiled to provide a comparison with the pay of Cradley Heath chainmakers.

Order confirming minimum rates of wages for male and female workers in the button-making trade, 1921

Includes schedule of minimum time rates for various age groups, piece-work basis time rates and overtime rates.

Minimum piece-rates for female home-workers who receive work through a middlewoman or middleman, 1922

Includes piece rates for carding of linen and metal buttons by women home workers.

Memorandum on proposed revision of the scope of the Button Making Trade, 1922

Two years after the Button Making Trade Board was established, proposals were submitted to extend the minimum wage to new classes of workers involved in button manufacturing. This memorandum outlines some of the areas of work to which the minimum rates should be extended.

Report from Special Committee on Unemployment Insurance of Out-Workers and on General Minimum Piece Rates for Homeworkers, 1923

The Committee expresses the opinion that it would be impractical for unemployment insurance to be extended to home workers and proposes adjustments to the piece rates.


Objections to rates of pay:

Individual employers, workers and trade union branches could make formal objections to the rates of wages set by the Trade Boards.

7 objections to proposed reduction in minimum rates of pay, 1921

Includes contradicting complaints that wages were too low and still too high.

Objection to minimum rates of pay, 1921

Letter from T.G. Aspery, Birmingham pearl button manufacturer, complaining about the high rates of wages for male workers.

Objection to proposed reduction in women's wages, 1922

Protest sent in by the Button Makers Trade Union, Women's Section, Leicester.

4 objections to proposed reduction in minimum rates of pay, 1923

Three objections that wages were too low (from London workers and employers) and one objection that wages were too high for juvenile workers (from a London Erinoid button manufacturer who employed mostly children).

3 objections to proposed reduction in minimum rates of pay, 1923

Objections that wages were too low (from two groups of workers) and an objection that, due to foreign competition, wages were still too high (from a London employer).


Working conditions:

'Button carders of Birmingham', 1906

Brief outline of the pay and conditions of home workers in Birmingham, included in 'Sweated industries', handbook of the Daily News exhibition.

Conditions at Newey's factory and of Birmingham home workers, 1920

Correspondence between Susan Lawrence (the National Federation of Women Workers' nominee on the Button Making Trade Board) and J.J. Mallon. Lawrence describes her visits to Newey's factory, Birmingham, where buttons were carded by "droves of children", and comments that through the use of outworkers instead of machinery "Birmingham is at its old game trying to compete with cheap labour against brains".

Report of enquiry into the yield of the general minimum piece rates fixed for female homeworkers employed on carding, 1922

The Trade Board enquiry involved testing 21 workers to see how quickly they could attach linen trouser buttons to card under factory and home-working conditions. It includes some information about the individual workers (all from the Birmingham area), including their surnames, ages, speed and level of 'ordinariness' as workers.

Report of enquiry into employment of workers in the erinoid section of the button-making trade, 1923

Erinoid was the proprietary name for an early type of plastic produced using milk protein (a 'casein' plastic). The process was patented in Britain in 1911 and Erinoid Ltd. began to manufacture casein plastic products in Stroud, Gloucester, in 1912. Similar products produced by other manufacturers were also referred to as 'erinoid'.

The short Trade Board report was the result of 39 visits to button making establishments in the London and Birmingham areas, and includes information about the extent to which erinoid was being used in manufacturing, the employment and prospects of juvenile workers, and the types of manufacturing operations involved.

Middlewomen and outworkers, 1923

Ministry of Labour circular about problems arising from the practice of employers giving piece work to middlewomen, who then sub-contract it to home workers.

Dangers for juvenile workers, 1924

Copy letter from Miss R. Part. She asks whether the Trade Board can do something to prevent girls of 14 working with dangerous machinery in factories, citing two recent cases of finger amputation in Bristol.


Exempted workers:

Trade Boards could issue permits of exemption which allowed employers to pay less than the minimum wage. Permits were given to workers who were regarded as having a physical or psychological disability which affected their work. Applications (usually submitted without the employees' names) can include short medical profiles of the individuals.

Statement of permits of exemption granted, 1921

Brief information about permits issued to 12 workers. Most workers were given lower wages due to old age, but others were described as "mentally deficient", having "bad eyesight", being "diminutive" or suffering from "infantile paralysis".

Statement of permits of exemption granted, 1922

Brief information about permits issued to 4 workers. All were issued due to old age.

Summary of application for permit of exemption, 1924

Permit application for a male employee of Smith & Wright Ltd., Birmingham, due to old age ("68 years of age and left-handed"). The application also refers to a disabled ex-serviceman employed by the firm.


Inspection and enforcement:

Report on administration for the year ending 7 July 1921

Summary information about inspections of firms and irregularities identified over the course of the year.

Report on inspection and enforcement for the year ending 31 December 1922

Summary information about inspections of firms and irregularities identified over the course of the year.


State of trade:

Return showing quantities and values of registered free imports into the United Kingdom of buttons and button moulds for May-June 1922

The return shows the extent of competition from international firms in different areas of button manufacture. Major importers included Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Japan and the USA.

Depression in the button trade: letter from Leicester button maker, 1923

Copy of a brief letter from A. Johnson, calling for the subject of the depression in the industry caused by foreign competition to be placed on the agenda of the Trade Board.