Pair of shoe buckles


These buckles with cut steel borders were produced in Birmingham by Matthew Boulton, one of the key figures of the industrial revolution.

The fashion for cut steel jewellery swept Britain and then Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although cut steel could be used to imitate diamonds, it was popular in its own right, even with people who could afford more expensive materials.

Pair of shoe buckles

 

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Pair of shoe buckles

Birmingham, 1792-1806
Made by Matthew Boulton and James Smith
Cut steel and leather
Given by Mr René de l’Hôpital
V&A: M.187&A-1926

The Prince of Wales, later George III

 

In the 18th century a fashionable man would wear buckles, decorative buttons, watch chains, rings and other jewellery. Buckles were essential. They were worn on shoes, at the knee and at the neck. By the late 1770s buckles had become so large that the playwright Sheridan had one of his characters remark that ‘the shoe has no earthly use, but to keep on the buckle’.

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The Prince of Wales, later George III

England, about 1750
Probably by Paul Petit
Oil on canvas
V&A: W.35:1&2-1972

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

 

Matthew Boulton combined business and marketing acumen with a passion for technological innovation. He supported James Watt’s development of the steam engine and helped reduce currency forgery by mass-producing identical coins. His premises in Soho, Birmingham, were one of the first modern factories.

Matthew Boulton

 

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Matthew Boulton

1801
Line engraving by William Sharp
After a portrait by Sir William Beechey

National Portrait Gallery, London
Matthew Boulton's factory at Soho, Birmingham

 

The Soho manufactory was built by Matthew Boulton between 1761 and 1765. It employed around 700 people and was known for its advanced technology and pioneering use of the division of labour, one of the hallmarks of the modern factory system. Many visitors came to marvel at its innovations.

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Matthew Boulton's factory at Soho, Birmingham

Print, about 1781

Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

 

This is one of the oldest rotative engines in the world. It was built in 1788 by James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine.

Watt and Matthew Boulton went into partnership in 1775, and Boulton’s Soho manufactory was one of the first to adopt steam power. This engine was used in the manufactory to drive the machines that polished items like buttons, snuff boxes and these steel buckles.

Rotative

 

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Rotative Steam Engine

Birmingham, 1788
Designed by Matthew Boulton and James Watt

Science Museum, London