Horn button maker

After 150 years and presumably the mother of all removal jobs, the West Midlands button factory recently left its old Victorian premises.

So, out with the red brick walls, wooden roofing, and row after row of hand-operated, early 19th-century machinery. Instead, in come altogether more modern surroundings — albeit ones only a stone’s throw from the last place. But, premises aside, at the Midlands button factory, most aspects of work remain the same.

There’s the people, for starters. The business has been in the hands of the same family since it opened. That’s five generations. No one here has been on the payroll since year dot, but one custodian concedes that, despite a 30 years-and-counting stint, he’s a relative newcomer. And people aren’t the only part of the factory to span generations: the factory floor is lined with tools and devices of all eras — a mind-boggling array of modern contraptions, as well as some sterling examples of mid-19th century engineering. Among them sit buckets of compression moulds for insignias and crests, and a small, intricate machine, dated 1914, used to press metal wires through buttons on butchers’ uniforms.

The other near-constant at the button manufacturer, and arguably the most important one, is the product. Millions and millions of real horn buttons are produced on these premises — including all of those featured here. The process begins with the sourcing of antler, goes through a plethora of steps, including cutting, dying, and polishing, and winds up with many, many finished articles.

Present at each stage of production are the standards and inimitable know-how accumulated over the last 150 years. Over that time, a few things have changed — some faster than others — but it’s still the precise same product off the line, same portraits of the founders in the entrance-way, and the same name above the door.