Tuesday, 8 April 2014


In McClure’s Magazine for February there is a very interesting story, there is a very interesting article on button making, and it recalls to the writer of these musings how near it happened nine years ago that a branch of that industry sought to establish a factory in Hamilton. It is an interesting story and we will tell it with all the brevity its importance demands. Some twenty-five years ago, a German living at Muscatine, Iowa, went out on a fishing expedition in the Mississippi River, and in trailing along the bottom of the river, his hooks caught in a bed of fresh water clams and he hauled a large one to the surface. The German, in his native land, had worked in a button factory, and the finding of the bed of clams suggested to him the possibilities of making buttons out of the shells. He took a number of shells home and boiled them clean, and then with some tools he had used in the button trade in the old country, made a dozen of buttons and sewing them on a card, sold them for ten cents to a storekeeper. That was the first dozen of buttons ever made from the clam beds of the Mississippi, and out of that was created an industry that has brought millions of dollars to a few towns along the river in Illinois and Iowa. Down in Louisiana, more clam beds were discovered, and this started the button industry in some of the river towns there. The interior of the clam shell gives a bright ivory surface, and the samples in possession of the Muser are interesting. Prior to the discovery of the clam beds in the Mississippi river twenty-five years ago, there were no pearl buttons made in America, and those made in foreign countries were from salt-water clams or mussels and were principally handwork, the machinery in use being very crude. The discovery of freshwater clams in the Mississippi river and the German’s knowledge of the button industry, opened a new field for labor, and from being a lumber town, Muscatine went into clam shell fishing and button making. It was some time before machinery was invented to do the work, and the buttons were made with the crudest kind of tools. Three young Irishmen who had a plumber’s shop in Muscatine finally invented a machine and the first one was rented for one dollar a day to the German who first discovered the wealth of shells in the river. Hundreds of those machines are now in use in the towns on the Mississippi, from Muscatine down to New Orleans, and the ivory button trade amounts to millions of dollars annually. The manufacturers successfully compete with the foreign product, and with the liberal duty under the McKinley tariff, thousands of women and children are earning good wages. Some of the fishermen have been fortunate in finding in the clam shells pearls of great value, for which they have realized $5,000 for a single pearl. Two men employed in one of the factories, working side by side, found in the shells two valuable pearls. At once they threw up their job and started for Chicago, where they sold the pearls for $2,000 each, and lived on the fat of the land till every dollar was spent; and they returned to Muscantine, tramping and riding on the buffers, and again took up their old job of button making. An Iowa German went out one day fishing and hauled in a big black clam shell. When the shell was opened, there was nestling inside a handsome pearl. A Chicago jeweler who was in Muscantine at the time looking for pearls paid the German $3,000 for his find. “Goodbye to Muscantine,” said the German; “I am off for my old home in the interior of the state and will buy the farm on which my family are now living as renters.” The magazine article is full of interest, but it is what Hamilton lost that we are going to tell briefly.
        In the month of March, 1906, a member of a large button firm doing business in Burlington, Iowa, came to Hamilton to look over the field for the purpose of starting a factory here. There was a widespread reputation of Hamilton as an electrical city, for at that time the Cataract Power company, through John Patterson, was sending broadcast the fame of Hamilton as the coming great industrial city. And, by the way, no Hamiltonian did more, or as much, to bring to this city American capital and industries. The Burlington capitalist was well-pleased with the outlook, and at once began to plan for the opening of a factory. Very wisely he called at the American consulate to obtain such information as would naturally help him, and was thus put in communication with John Hall, who had charge of the industrial promotion of the city. To start right, the capitalist was advised at the consulate to learn from the departments at Ottawa on what conditions he could bring in machinery and the material to make buttons, and John Hall opened correspondence with Ottawa. The answer was that the machinery would be admitted at a nominal sum, but that a duty would be charge on the blanks from which the buttons were made. The proposition of the Burlington manufacturer was that he should be permitted to bring in the blanks as it would be too costly to ship the whole shells on account of wastage, as from each shell not more than half a dozen blanks could be produced. The remainder of the shells would be worthless except for road building, and the question was whether they could get enough out of the refuse to pay the cost of transportation. As the government would not yield anything on that point, the proposition fell through, and Hamilton did not get the button factory, nor is there a factory in Canada today in that line of business. So certain was the Burlington man that the government would readily accede to getting an industry of that kind, which did not interfere with any other Canadian industry, that he had made a contract for a building for his business. A sample of the blanks was sent to Ottawa, so that the officials could see just what the company asked free entry for. The writer has a handful of the blanks which he kept during the past nine years and were lying forgotten in a pigeonhole in his desk till the reading of the magazine article recalled them to memory. The Burlington Manufacturer intended to begin operations with a force of fifty or sixty hands, men and women, and as the trade developed the number would be increased to keep up with the demand. Those employed in the Iowa factories are earning good wages, and there was no reason to suppose that less would be paid here. The electric power was the great inducement for the promoters to come to Hamilton with their industry. A short-sighted policy kept the button industry out of Hamilton and out of Canada. We might mention here that at first the refuse of the shells had no value, but one day a button maker crushed a number of shells into powder and fed them to an old hen that had about retired from the egg-producing business, and immediately Biddy got busy and began laying again. That was the beginning of a new industry, and now the pulverized shells are sold as chicken feed.
        Those who visit the hospitals with benevolent intent meet with cases and incidents that touch their hearts. The other day a lady visitor was passing through the children’s ward when she was attracted by a childish voice singing so sweetly a hymn she had learned in the Plymouth Brethren Sunday school. The little girl was unconscious while singing, for in her seasons of delirium there is a hint of a kind of tender sweetness in her voice that is like the flavor of old music half forgotten. Father and daughter were both in the hospital at the same time, suffering from typhoid fever. As the child neared the end of each verse, her voice died away, and became lost; and then she would begin again, the same result following. The lady visitor and others in the ward were so overcome with the child’s singing that they were moved to tears, for the air and the words of the hymn, with the sweet cadence of the voice of the unconscious singer, lifted them from this world for the moment to the land beyond in which the child wandered in her delirium. The hymns and songs that one learned in childhood are never forgotten, for they come back in after life as a pleasant memory of home and mother. The small audience that were attracted in the hospital ward that afternoon by the voice and song of the fever-tossed child will never forget the influence upon them for the time being. The songs of our youth never pass from memory. Many a man and woman who has been lured into the paths of error and sin have been checked in their unfortunate course by hearing the songs they learned at mother’s knee or in the Sunday school. The story as told by the lady visitor at a meeting of ladies recently loses its force when put into cold type for the readers of these musings, but it may recall pleasant thoughts of childhood to some who have not given much attention to things of the past.
        It recalls to the memory of the Muser an incident of the civil war in the United States of half a century ago. Soldiers in time of peace are generally regarded as harum-scarum sort of fellows, but when it gets down to real war a great change comes o’er the spirit of one’s dream. Then there is a difference in the professional soldier – one who enlists because he likes a dashing uniform and an easy time – and in the volunteer soldier who comes to the front when the flag of his country is threatened. Over two millions of the men and boys volunteered from 1861 on till the last call was made for more human food for powder. At first many those from the north hardly knew what a musket was for, and the same was true of the large army that came up from the south. Hundreds of thousands left wife and children, mothers and sisters, and to the rataplan of the drum and the piercing tones of the fife, they marched to fight for what they believed was the right, and not as professional soldiers. Those boys went from home and its influences, taking with them the training of their childhood days. By the campfire at night, they sang the songs of home and the hymns they had learned in Sunday school and church. The ribald song was rarely heard, as the singer would be speedily hissed down. These surroundings will in a large measure account for the morale of both armies. Here and there some would drop by the wayside in an evil hour, forgetting the past. Card-plying was one of the pastimes in camp, with poker on the side for very small stakes; but there was one thing remarkable, that when the long roll beat for a prospective brush with the enemy, no man carried a pack of cards with him – they were scattered hither and you; the testament and book of sacred songs could be found in nearly every man’s pocket, Protestant and Catholic. One of the greatest comforts to the sick and wounded in the camp hospitals was the visits of a quartet of singers of an afternoon, and how the poor fellows did enjoy the songs of home and the songs they sang in church and Sunday school, especially the grandest of all songs, Home, Sweet Home. That little girl in the city hospital, even in her delirium, wandered back to the songs she learned in the Plymouth Brethren Sunday school. There is a power in music that haunts us even when other incidents in life are forgotten.
        The incident herewith related has been referred to in a former musing some years ago, but as now new readers are added to the Spectator and the older ones may have forgotten it, it may stand repetition. During the civil war in the United States, there was brought one night into the camp hospital on the banks of the Kanawha river, in West Virginia, a sergeant of the Third Virginia cavalry, a stalwart young fellow, but broken down with long and hard campaigning. He had been seized with fever while on duty and brought to the hospital for treatment. From the first, the surgeons had no hope of his recovery, for his mind had wandered off to the days of his childhood, and his then present condition was a blank to him. He had a rich tenor voice when in health, and all night long he tried to sing that grand old Methodist hymn, A Charge to Keep I Have, a God to Glorify. His voice started in strong at the first, but as he proceeded, it died away as though the sound came down through the Kanawha valley. He never got beyond the first verse, for before reaching the end of the four lines his mind and his voice seemed to be in another world. Toward daybreak in the morning, he seemed to rally for a moment, and then with one more effort he raised his voice in the same old hymn, and toward the close of the first verse, his immortal soul returned to the God he glorified in song. What an effect that trooper’s song had on the other patients in the hospital and to their dying day, they never forgot that old hymn. The trooper was born and raised in the mountains of West Virginia, and probably he first heard that hymn from his mother or at the church and Sunday school from the old itinerant preachers who travelled the circuit before the days of war. Mothers teach your children the songs of home and of your Christian faith, and when they go out into this world the remembrance of them may oft keep them from straying into forbidden paths.
        The other night the bank clerks in Toronto held a meeting to form a union that might tend to better their financial condition. Bank clerks are supposed to be young men of fair business education and refinement – and to prepare for this costs time and money, even after schooldays are ended. They are expected to dress decently and to lodge in boarding houses of the better class. As a general thing, they are gentlemanly in their habits and are expected to have the entrĂ©e of decent society. And all this has to be done on a salary that a corporation laborer would turn up his nose at. Being refined in his manner, the bank clerk is a sentimental fellow in his way, but such a thing as falling in love with some sweet girl is out of the question, for one of the rules o Canada banking-houses is that no clerk, under any circumstances, is permitted to marry until he has reached a salary of $1,000 a year. It does seem a little cheeky for a lot of bloated bondholders, who are directors and managers; with marriageable daughters that mamma is anxious to transfer to the head of a family, to pass such outrageous laws. It is a crime against nature, and it is only a wonder that bank clerks are as good and virtuous as they are. Is it because directors and managers think $1,000 and over clerks are more honest than the young men on the $600 and $800 payroll? Well, these young Toronto fellows would like an increase of salary so that they can lay by a few dollars by the time they are financially ready to take a wife; and this Muser hopes that they will be able to so forcibly present their claim that the directors will add a trifle to each clerk’s pay check. It is well enough for the directors and managers to lay by so much a year for an officer’s pension fund, but not one in a hundred of the clerks are ever heard of as pensioners. Long before they arrive at the pensionable age, they drop out of banking and go into some business that their financial education has fitted them for. And, by the way, go into any banking house in Hamilton, and you will rarely see a grey-headed clerk. Then who are to get all of that pension money we read of in the annual reports? One bank appropriates $100,000 a year of the earnings of the stockholders’ money and lays it aside to pay some manager or officer a big pension. Better pay the workers decent salaries and let them provide for their future, the same as the common stockholder has to do. The clerks in Hamilton also held a meeting this week, but they were cautious in letting their wants be known. It was proposed to organize a special club, where they would spend their evenings. Boys, keep out of the club business, and whatever leisure hours you have, spend them in the society of good girls. By and by the directors may modify that $1,000 salary rule; or, better still, they will raise you up to that figure, and let your provide your own pension scheme.