Dorset buttons, a type of ancient fabric fastener, were originally made by cottage dwellers, mostly women, in the county of Dorset, England. They had been made in Dorset cottages for centuries, but it was not until the early 1600s, when Abraham Case of Shaftesbury created an industry.
Case may have been inspired by the exquisite thread work of button makers he had seen in France and Belgium while he was a soldier. On returning to England, he saw the need for large numbers of buttons and started his button-making business using readily available raw materials found locally. The gentlemen’s fine silk waistcoats (vests) that were fashionable at the time sported so many tiny buttons that a man servant needed a button hook to fasten them. It is reported that Charles I wore Dorset buttons on the coat he was wearing at his execution in 1649.
The first type of button Abraham produced in numbers were High Tops, made specifically for the gentlemen’s waistcoats. These were quickly followed by a slightly flatter version called a Dorset Knob. Both these types of buttons were hard, and it was clear that a softer one was needed for children’s clothes so the aptly named Bird’s Eyes were designed. The most popular and famous button appeared around 1700, and that was the Crosswheel, formed on disks from the horns of Dorset ship. That is the type of Dorset button with which we are most familiar today.
The button-making industry experienced a revolution when Abraham Case’s grandson started importing metal rings from Birmingham to use as the base for the buttons, replacing horn. They were cheaper and far easier to work with. Combined with the ready supply of labor, the button-making industry now spread all over southern England and the cottage industry reached its peak during the early 18th and 19th centuries.
Following a fire in 1731, the center of the Dorset button industry moved from Shaftesbury to Blandford. Robert Fisher opened a button depot at his drapers shop in Blandford, and the cottage workers could bring their completed buttons to his shop. Representatives from the button depot also traveled around to collect buttons directly from the artisans. Travelers and merchants could then buy the buttons in bulk.
The industry thrived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, still run primarily by the Fisher family of Blandford. Sadly, nothing lasts forever and that proved true for the Dorset button business. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 at London’s Crystal Palace, John Ashton demonstrated a button making machine. Buttons could now be manufactured at a fraction of the cost and at a much faster and reliable rate, all identical. This meant the collapse of the Dorset cottage button industry, with catastrophic results.
Modern people may have thought these workers were exploited; in fact, the industry provided a lucrative income for the button makers. At the height of the industry, button makers earned an average of two shillings a day for making approximately six or seven dozen buttons. Compared with the nine-pence a day they might expect from farm work, the only real alternative for these women, it was no surprise that poor women flocked to this new cottage industry.
Although a major factor, it wasn’t just the money that attracted so many women to this cottage based industry. There were many other advantages. Working indoors was far preferable to being out in the fields in all weathers. Women could be at home caring for their children while still earning an income. At least one other indirect financial benefit was very important; the wear and tear on their clothes, particularly their shoes, was less than when worn for field work. Many families lived in relative comfort, and they were even able to survive if the male breadwinner was lost, often through war, which had previously been disastrous. Dorset button making also provided employment for older workers who were unfit for field work.
With the growth of machinery in the industry, however, most families, especially those with widowed breadwinners who had depended totally on their earnings from button making, were hit with near starvation. Combined with the introduction of more mechanization on farms, which was happening simultaneously, it meant that there was almost no need for unskilled labor. Hundreds of families were forced to emigrate to America or Australia; in fact, the Case family found themselves having to work for the landed gentry. For others, especially the elderly, it meant the workhouse, a sad end to the lives of these women who had known better days with the button-making industry.
The machined button still were called “Dorset buttons” and were used on fashions through the 19th and early 20th centuries. In recent years there has been a revival of and demand for Dorset buttons, along with other handmade buttons. This trend is no doubt a response to all the cheap, machine-made goods so prevalent today and the desire to have something unique and beautiful.