Examples from my book Button Ware
I love mother of pearl buttons. Over the years, as I was searching for samples, I began to learn the fascinating story of their rise to popularity and the uniquely American slant to their success. I thought I would share that with you today.
For centuries, since buttons first made their appearance in ancient Persia as merely decorative additions (remember, buttonholes and the functionality of buttoning an item of clothing did not appear until the 12th century), there has always been a calling for something shiny to adorn our clothes. However, mother of pearl – along with precious metals, bone and animal horns – was extremely rare, expensive to obtain and reserved for royalty.
It was not until a German-born button maker, John Fredrick Boepple, immigrated to the United States did mother of pearl buttons rise to popularity and became available to the masses. You see, even though automation had come to the button making process in Europe in the mid 1800s, the process of stamping them from shells required specialized and expensive machinery. As well, the shells Boepple used had to be imported and were subject to an extremely high tariff. With his business failing, John Boepple brought his button stamping machinery to the one place he was sure could supply him an endless supply of shells – the United States and the Mississippi River.
Muscatine History and Industry Center, Button Factory Workers, John Boepple and his button stamping machine
Boepple settled in Muscatine, Iowa at a bend in the river where great amounts of fresh-water clams grew. Thanks to the mighty Mississippi, his mother of pearl button business grew beyond his wildest dreams. By 1900, Boepple expanded his operations to the point that he employed one third of the town of Muscatine, which became known as “Pearl City” and the “Pearl Button Capital of the World,” out-pacing button factories in Europe. The export value of mother of pearl buttons at the turn of the century was well over $3.5 million dollars…quite a sum for the time.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, one of my many collecting ‘obsessions’ is buttons, including those made of mother of pearl. Many in my collection come from Wisconsin Pearl Buttons in Lacrosse, WI.
Taking nearly 6600 tons of clams from the mighty Mississippi, the Wisconsin factory churned out millions of pearl buttons during its heyday. After the buttons were made, they were distributed to homes in the city, where women and children sewed them onto a card, receiving a penny for each finished card they produced. I really love the variety and creativity used in the card designs themselves.
Sadly, the mother of pearl button business eventually left Lacrosse and Muscatine due to the construction of up-river locks and dams, the over-harvesting of clams, and the explosive growth of plastic button manufacturing. However, if you keep you eyes open, you can still find beautiful mother of pearl buttons, mounted on cards, ready to add to your own collection.
As always, thanks for letting me share a little bit of my love of vintage.