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Button making had been practiced in Dorset cottages for centuries but can only really be described as an industry after Abraham Case of Shaftesbury placed it on a more business like footing during the reign of Queen Anne. The cottage industry reached its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Initially the buttons were made from a disc of the horn of Dorset Sheep, the Portland sheep provided a plentiful source of raw materials. The disk was covered with a piece of cloth and then overworked with a fine tracery of linen thread. The diameter of the buttons ranging from half an inch down to an unbelievable eighth of an inch.
Twenty years later there was a revolution in the button making industry when Abraham Case's grandson started importing metal rings from Birmingham to use as the base for the buttons instead of horn. They were far easier to work with - and cheaper. Combined with the ready supply of labour the industry now spread out in all directions, reaching as far south as Bere Regis.
The centre of the button making industry was to move from Shaftesbury to Blandford Forum, when, after the fire of 1731, a Mr. Robert Fisher opened a Button Depot at his drapers shop in Market Place, Blandford. The out-workers could bring or send their completed buttons at any time; and the depot was regularly visited by travelers who bought them in bulk.
Blandford Forum is often given as an example of a Georgian town, as the entire centre was rebuilt at once in the 1700s, due to a fire, and is hence uniformly Georgian. All facades remain in fair to good condition, and notable buildings include The Corn Exchange, and the 1732 parish church of St Peter and St Paul, a classical building with a cupola on top of the tower.
Cloth covered buttons were sold at between eight-pence and three shillings a dozen, while the women workers averaged about 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.
Although it was 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 always preferable to being out in the fields in all weathers. It enabled women to be at home to look after the family whilst still retaining an income. Apart from the direct benefits, there was at least one indirect benefit that was very important when money was tight. Their clothes and particularly their shoes, didn't wear out at anything like the rate they did when worn in the fields in all weathers. It was therefore no surprise that poorer women flocked to join in this new cottage industry.
The industry thrived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, still run primarily by the Fisher family of Blandford. Many families lived in relative comfort, and were able to survive the loss of the male breadwinner, something that had been very difficult in previous times.
Nothing could last forever, and at the Great Exhibition of 1851, a Mr. John Ashton demonstrated a button making machine. It was a disaster for the cottage industry of Dorset, buttons could now be made at a fraction of the cost and at a far more rapid and reliable rate, all identical.
Near starvation hit most families, especially those with widowed breadwinners who had depended totally on their earnings from button making. Combined with the introduction of more mechanization on farms, which was happening at the same time meant that there was little requirement for unskilled labour.