Buckles - the trade at its height

Buckles, whether for shoes, belts or any other fastening purpose can be made from a wide range of materials with an even wide range of finishes.  Wolverhampton was a steel working town, renowned for its steel jewellery which was probably of many types.  The trade directories show great numbers of "buckle makers".  These people were not necessarily making only buckles and were not necessarily making them only in steel - indeed, there are some people separately listed as makers of japanned buckles.  But the trade was dominated by the making of steel buckles, especially shoe buckles.

The Romans may have buckled their shoes and they were certainly in use here in medieval times. But they were usually sewn into a strap like the ones we still see today on sandals and children's shoes.
Shoe buckles, such as those which Wolverhampton made, were slipped on to a tongue of material from the shoe and could be taken off, so that they could be put on another shoe, or so that you could ring the changes with one pair of shoes using different buckles.

These buckles were in common and fashionable use for a period of about 130 years, replacing, and then being replaced by, what are called shoe ties or ribbons or strings or, later, laces. One of the earliest recorded mentions of shoe buckles is in Pepys' diary for the 22nd January 1660: "This day I began to put buckles on my shoes". This seems to date the start of the fashion.

Holland and Hunt quote the "quaint" history of shoe fastening given by "Hutton of Birmingham":

"This fashion (of piked toes), like every other, gave way to time and, in its stead, the rose began to bud on the foot;  which, under the house of Tudor, opened in great perfection. No shoe was fashionable without being   fastened with a full blown rose.  Ribands of every colour, except white, the emblem of the depressed house pf York, were had in esteem;  but the red, like the house of Lancaster, held the pre-eminence.  Under the house of Stuart, the rose withered, which gave rise to the shoe string,  The beaus of that age ornamented their lower tier with double laces of silk, tagged with silver, and the extremities were beautified with a small fringe of the same metal.  The inferior classes wore laces of plain silk, linen or even a thong of leather; which last is yet to be met with in the humble plains of rural life.   ...  The revolution [sc. of 1688] was remarkable for the introduction of William, of liberty, and the minute shoe buckle, not differing much in size from the horse-bean.  This offspring of fancy, like the clouds, is ever changing - the fashion of to-day is thrown into the casting pot of tomorrow.  The buckle seems to have undergone every figure, size and shape of geometrical invention.  It has passed through every form in the whole zodiac of Euclid.  The large square buckle, plated with silver, was the ton of 1781.  The ladies also adopted the reigning taste:  it was difficult to discover their beautiful little feet, covered with an enormous shield of a buckle; and we wondered to see the active motion under the massive load".

The Euclidean pentagon is about 7 cms across at its widest point.  The round one is just under 1 cm across.  I have no idea how big a horse-bean is.

At first shoe buckles were attacked by critics as immodest ornaments but the whims of fashion prevailed. They were made of many materials, including gold and silver, and could be ornamented in any way the maker could think of.  But steel predominated and steel buckles were predominantly made in Wolverhampton.

This predominance of steel may not have been immediate. Swan says that "from the late 1760s cut steel comes to the fore, from the thriving industry of the Wolverhampton area". Bilston was also a great centre of buckle making, and other areas included Walsall as well as London and Birmingham.  Stebbing Shaw, in 1801, noted the following trades in Darlaston:  gun-lock makers, nailers, fet makers, chape forgers, chape makers, stirrup makers, buckle-ring forgers, and miners; which shows that other places in the Black Country were in on the trade too.
It has been suggested that Wolverhampton and Walsall had a large trade in making horse harness and that these towns therefore contained experienced buckle makers from long ago; and that it was this skill which enabled them to leap onto the shoe buckle bandwagon when it came rolling by.

But when Angerstein was in Wolverhampton in 1753 the steel toy industry and the making of buckles was in full swing.  On arrival at his inn he noted that "scores of smiths came in to offer their wares for sale [to the merchants, or "factors"].  Included in these were nails, tools, locks, hinges, key-rings, buckles, corkscrews, watch chains, flat irons, crimping irons, sugar axes, snuffers and other similar good in iron and steel". 
At another point, on a later visit to Wolverhampton, Angerstein repeats the information: "It is particularly renowned for all kinds of polished articles, such as buckles, watch chains, candle snuffers, etc.".   As if the matter were of some special importance he devotes a paragraph to explaining buckle manufacture.

There are two parts to a shoe buckle. The operative part is called the chape and includes the prongs which engage the strap on the shoe. To the top of the chape is fixed the ring, which is the part which is decorated. Together they make up the buckle. Chape making, which was probably a mass production affair, was a separate trade.
Mould says: "The buckle chape was almost the exclusive trade of Bilston and the surrounding area. These craftsmen, with huge supplies of English iron, would turn out thousands a week". The workers described as buckle makers were the people who designed and created the ring and attached them to the chape.

Angerstein does not mention chape making in Bilston but he gives an account of Wolverhampton buckle making.  Despite being accompanied by drawings this explanation is not as clear as might be.  It is, however, clear that different operations were carried out in different shops, the chape (or "hook and spike" as Angerstien's translators have it) in one shop and the ring in another. 

The chape, he says, is made out of sheet metal, which is cut to the shape required and its mirror image, and the whole is then folded upon itself, heated and soldered and stamped, to produce a blank.  The centre is then removed by "stamping" (which appears from the sketches to be chiselling out rather than stamping).  It is then filed, presumably to remove roughnesses and to provide a proper finish. The ring is made (in another shop) by bending metal into a circle and then welding the ends together and then "made square on the point of an anvil".  He says nothing about any further decoration of the ring.  

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