Muscatine Pearl Button History in New Book

Muscatine, Iowa

Muscatine, Iowa

Muscatine Pearl Button History in New Book


The local button industry was started in 1891 by an enterprising German immigrant, John Fredrick Boepple, skilled in making buttons from sea shells, who brought his manual-operated button press machine to Muscatine and launched a quickly mushrooming industry. Soon thousands of men were collecting shellfish from the river and its tributaries, and thousands of women and teenagers turned them into glistening buttons sewed onto decorative small cards with names like Mermaid and Blue Bird.

Pearl was the name for the shell interiors used to make the buttons, and it was also the name of a fiery young labor activist renowned in her time but relatively unknown in more recent decades. But she appears to be enjoying a resurgence of fame now.

Industry spy turned crusading organizer

Pearl McGill started working in the button factories as a teenager as a sort of spy for the industry, recruited by her uncle’s friend to see if workers were as “shiftless and lazy” as bosses suspected. More likely, many say, was that the company wanted her to report on union organizing activities. McGill was also trying to earn money to study to be a teacher.

Though her job was to report to the button industry power brokers, young Pearl soon found herself sympathizing more with the workers. Soon she was an activist and prominent member of the Women's Trade Union League and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helping to organize the button workers and also traveling around the heartland and the east coast to make speeches and play a key role in the famous textile workers strikes of 1912.

The Muscatine button workers battled with politicians and bosses, with strikes, violence and intrigue common. All the drama ended several decades later when much-cheaper, similar-looking plastic buttons became available. The pearl button industry basically died, except for small demand for vintage buttons for designer clothing.

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