The Pearl Button Story
An Immigrant with an Idea
John Boepple was a master craftsman in Hamburg, Germany. He was skilled at making buttons from animal horn and hooves, bone and seashells. John had heard about the fresh-water mussels in the Mississippi River. He was convinced there was a fortune to be earned in making buttons from these shells with their pearl-like inside coating.
In 1888 John Boepple set sail for the New World with his idea. But when he arrived he found no one willing to loan him money to start such a business. So he took work as a farm hand in Iowa.
In his spare time John built a foot-powered machine, based on what he had learned in Germany. He gathered shells from the river, cut buttons, polished and sold them.
A few people became interested enough to put up the money for starting a button factory. In 1891 Boepple Button Company opened a one-room factory in Muscatine, where the supply of mussels was good. By the next year the company was doing so well that it moved to a larger building, where it operated for four years.
Iowa Becomes the "Button Capital"
As button manufacturing caught on in Muscatine, business just seemed to slip away from John. Other people took his ideas and made their own fortunes. The craftsman from Hamburg was a good button maker, but not such a good businessman, and his company failed.
Meanwhile John Boepple's method for making buttons had been taken up in cities all along the Mississippi River. Within ten years the Pearl City (Muscatine) became the largest manufacturer of fresh-water pearl buttons in the world. In 1898 Iowa turned out 138,615,696 buttons!
Jobs are Plentiful
Even a fairly simple kind of manufacturing like button making creates many jobs. Clam fishers in small boats dragged sets of hooks along the river bottom where, as the History of Muscatine County (1912) tells us:
It is the habit of the clam to lie with his mouth open upstream, to catch little morsels of food that are carried down... and when one of those wire hooks touches his tender lips, the wretched fool grabs it, closes his shell upon it and holds on...
The fishers then brought in their catch, and the clams were thrown into big pots of boiling water to kill them. Men and women pried the loosened shells apart and cleaned out the whitish meat.
From the riverbank, wagoners hauled the shells to the factory, where they were soaked in water for about a week. This softened the shells so that they didn't break so easily while being sawed.
The cutters were the highest paid workers in the button factory and were always men. It was a skilled job, because a good cutter got as many button blanks out of each shell as possible. He used a saw that revolved and cut a hole in the shell, the cut-out part being the button blank. These blanks were dropped into a bucket by the cutter, and then carried to a line of workers at grinding machines (usually boys). Here the rough outer side of shell was removed and the blanks ground to an even thickness.
A conveyor belt carried the blanks to the finishing machine. Along the belt a worker turned them all rough side up. At the finishing machine, another worker carved out the center and drilled the holes. Buttons were fed into this machine by hand, one at a time.
To shine them, the buttons were tumbled in a churn with water and powdered pumice for half a day. Finally they were washed, dried in sawdust and moved onto the sorting tables. Women and girls sorted the buttons according to quality, color and luster. Some were hand sewn on cards, and others were placed in boxes for shipping.
Women held many jobs in button manufacturing, usually the less skilled and lower paying positions. Cutters made an average of $8 to $10 a week, considered fairly good pay at the time. Facers, drillers and packers—all positions filled by women—were paid between $4 and $6 a week. This was also good wages, but the women could not hope to move up to the best paying job of a cutter. Boys and girls under sixteen also found work in the button factories in other positions.
No More Clams
When John Boepple opened his button factory in 1891, there were thousands of mussels bedded in the mud at the bottom of the Mississippi River. The factories cut, polished and sold pearl buttons as fast as the fishers could bring in the shells. By 1900 there were very few clams left "lying with (their) mouths open upstream" to snap up the hooks.
But clam fishers found new, untouched beds in the Arkansas, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. The shells were shipped by barge or rail to Muscatine, and the button business kept going. But eventually button makers would turn to plastics, which were cheaper and easier to work with. They would not need the Mississippi or any other river, and button making would all but disappear from Iowa.
When the clam beds of the Mississippi had been fished out, John Boepple went to work for the federal government to help solve the problem of the disappearing fresh water mussel. Until he died in 1912 he worked at the clam and mussel hatchery near Fairport as a shell expert. The hatchery hoped to produce enough mussels to restock the riverbeds. Unfortunately, rivers became polluted with industrial waste and city sewage and the mussel couldn't survive in the polluted water.
- Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “The Pearl Button Story,” The Goldfinch 2, no. 2 (November 1980): 11-13.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa. .