History of the Building
The Button Factory Arts building was constructed in 1886, at 25 Queen (later Regina) Street South. The business, owned by Richard and Rudolph Roschman, closed in the mid-1940s. The building was subsequently used by Duffus Plywood Limited, the Ontario Glove Manufacturing Company, and Schendel Office Supplies. In 1982, it was designated by the City of Waterloo as a historical and architecturally significant landmark, now the cherished home of Button Factory Arts.
The start of the button factory
Richard Roschman stowed away on a ship near the end of the Franco-Prussian war to avoid joining the army. Fortunately when the 23-year-old German tool maker announced his presence to the ship’s captain, he agreed to let Roschman work for his passage to Canada. When Roschman arrived in Québec on March 23, 1871, the captain told him to head to Berlin, Ontario where he would find many of his countrymen.
Berlin supported a thriving button industry at the time with five local factories. Roschman began working at the Vogelsang and Shantz Button Factory, one of the first of its kind in Canada, shortly after settling in the area. After learning the trade, Roschman decided to open the first button business in Waterloo in 1878 with partner Daniel Bowman. When his brother Rudolph arrived, he began working there as well, and by 1884 the Roschman brothers were in business together. The Roschmans were just two of thirteen children born in Ulm, Germany, to a prominent soap manufacturing family.
“(Richard Roschman) came to the New World with little capital, but with strong determination and by unfaltering energy and perseverance he has worked his way upward in the business world from a humble financial position to one of affluence.” As the business grew, the Roschmans built a new factory in the late 1880s on what is now Regina Street in Uptown Waterloo. The historic factory has been designated a heritage landmark and is being used by the Waterloo Community Arts Centre. It is generally described as “Mennonite Georgian” and is considered to be an excellent example of a late nineteenth-century industrial building.
By 1900, more than one hundred men and women were making everything from buttons to buckles and cufflinks. A Waterloo woman who worked at the factory as a 14-year-old remembers: “It was dirty work, the shells were brittle and sandy, I sorted them and put them in baskets, then men carried them away to be stamped into buttons. There were a lot of young people working there; the girls sat at long tables to sort and grade. I made $5 a week.”
From shell to plastic
"Passers-by would often see the heaps of shells piled in the factory’s yard. When the discarded shells accumulated to form a large heap, they were hauled away to be used as clean landfill.”
Business was good to Richard and Rudolph for many years; both of them married and raised children in the community. They were also actively involved in the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem on King Street.
However, their fortunes began to change when cheap plastic buttons from Japan flooded the North American market, making it difficult for the brothers to compete. As well, hand-tailored suits were being replaced by machine-made clothing that needed the symmetrical plastic buttons for the assembly-line. The use of zippers cut further into their market, and by the mid-1940s the Roschman button factory was shut down.
Today the Button Factory is considered one of the finest examples of late nineteenth century industrial building in the area. The three storey building and its tall, equally proportioned rows of windows exude a classic stateliness and monumental air. The segmental arches over the windows and the dental brick work where the wall meets the roof add to the graceful stature of the architecture.
Historic Profile from Profiles from the Past, Faces of the Future: Waterloo 150
Published by the Waterloo Public Library
Becoming Button Factory Arts
Established as Waterloo Community Arts Centre in 1993
On February 11th, 1993, one hundred people gathered at the Adult Recreation Centre in Waterloo to discuss the formation of the Waterloo Community Arts Centre (WCAC) now known as Button Factory Arts. A proposal was presented to the City of Waterloo and it was agreed that the WCAC be given a three year mandate to create a self-supporting art centre in the Old Button Factory.
WCAC (Button Factory Arts) was established in 1994, and in September 1996, was granted a long-term lease on the Button Factory, which has now become a vital part of Uptown Waterloo.
25th anniversary book
In 2019, Button Factory Arts celebrated its 25th anniversary as an art centre. This book celebrates the organization's development over the past 25 years.
The content of this book is divided into three sections:
1: History of the building
2: Formation of Waterloo Community Art Centre with a focus on the first 10 years, early milestones and past anniversaries
3: An-in depth look at the exhibitions, events, educational programs, and 25th anniversary celebrations of 2019
This book does not represent a full history of the organization. It highlights a selection of events which tell the story of the grassroots initiative which brought the first community art centre to Uptown Waterloo.
- Allie Brenner, 25th Anniversary Book Designer, Program Director at Button Factory Arts, 2015-2022.