In 1905, Muscatine was producing 1.5 billion pearl buttons a year. Nearly 37% of the world’s buttons were coming from Muscatine, dubbing it “The Pearl Button Capital of the World.” At the Muscatine History and Industry Center, visitors are invited to take a tour through the journey Muscatine experienced from the rise to the fall of the pearl button.
Mary L. Wildermuth, Director of the Muscatine History and Industry Center is proud of the work they do at the center, “We bring to life the pearl button capital of the world days that are depicted through tour, video and artifacts. The map in the center of the museum is a map of Muscatine with labeled streets and it depicts the various cutting sheds and finishing plants scattered all over our town. Today we still find shells with holes cut out of them in our yards, garden spots and drive ways, many of us still have a connection to the button industry through our relatives, grandparent or uncle/aunt who worked in the button industry, carding buttons or making blanks.”
The Muscatine History and Industry Center is home to the Pearl Button Museum. There, visitors can learn how John Frederick Boepple immigrated to Muscatine solely in search of the perfect place to gather shells to make buttons, found the jackpot of mussels to harvest, and fired the starting gun of the pearl button industry in Muscatine.
After understanding what Boepple was starting, “clammers” began popping up all over the Muscatine area and setting up camp because this job involved entire families. Men would collect the shells while women and children steamed them open and removed the mussel.
Cutting button “blanks” out of the shells was a tough, dirty, and sometimes dangerous job. Workers were paid per blank so efficiency and speed were important, but lack of safety precautions could result in serious injuries for workers.
“Finishing Plants” were where button blanks became actual buttons. More large machines were used in this process. Some machines smoothed the blanks while others cut the pattern into them. One Barry Manufacturing “Double Automatic” pattern cutting machine could produce up to 21,600 buttons each day. The end of the process was to polish and hand-sort them by manufacturing defects, natural stains, color, luster, and iridescence. Women and children would take buttons home and sew them to eye catching cards before they were ready to be sold in stores.
The pearl button industry is a huge part of the history of Muscatine. At its peak, pearl button manufacturing employed nearly half of the area’s population. People from all over the world came to Muscatine to work in some way with the making of pearl buttons. In the factories, employees put in 60-hour work weeks consisting of ten-hour days, six days a week.
Shells that had already been cut piled up in the streets. When they became a problem, factory owners needed to find something to do with them. Solutions to this problem included paving alleyways, grinding them up for insecticide or chicken feed, decoration in fish bowls, and even jewelry or hat pins. Many businessmen found ways to turn the waste into a profitable item.
The popularity of plastic buttons finally ended the reign of pearl buttons in the late 1950s into the ‘60s. Plastic buttons were cheaper to make and more durable, especially after the creation of the electric washing machine.
Today, residents of Muscatine can still see the remnants of the pearl button era. Occasionally, used shells will wash up from the storm drains and some of the factory buildings are still standing. Many residents have a direct connection to the pearl button industry through their families such as Terry Eagle, the Assistant Director of the museum. Visitors can see a photo of Eagle’s father and uncle amongst other clammers at the museum.
The place to see the most history of the pearl button industry is at the Pearl Button Museum. The museum has machines, tools, shells, posters, videos and many, many buttons on display. Visitors can take a guided tour or explore the museum on their own.
If visitors are interested in the more recent industrial side of Muscatine they can take a short walk upstairs and view another exhibit. “The second floor continues our town’s story with exhibits about Muscatine’s Industrial Entrepreneurs who in the 1940’s began to sketch out Muscatine after pearl buttons. These entrepreneurial leaders were the Carvers, Stanleys and Kents who began Bandag, HON and Kent Companies. We have so much to be proud of and it is the people who created new products, new tools, new equipment, entrepreneurs who have made our town the place in the world it is today, said Wildermuth.