Muscatine Iowa Button Capital of the World

Muscatine Iowa Button Capital of the World

Muscatine Iowa Button Capital of the World

Muscatine, Iowa

For much of the 1800s, people harvested pearl mussels largely for their freshwater pearls. Then in 1887, a German button maker, John Frederick Boepple, arrived in the United States and settled in the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa. Here he opened a mother-of-pearl button factory in 1891, supplied by an abundance of thick-shelled American pearl mussels from nearby rivers and streams. By 1900, this small Iowa town had earned the right to call itself the "Pearl Button Capital of the World," out-producing more established button-making centers in Europe, where buttons were made primarily from the shells of Indo-Pacific marine mollusks.

By the middle of the 20th century, however, most of Mucatine's button makers had gone out of business, largely as a result of the plastic button industry. Searching for a new market, mussel fishers across the Midwest sent their shells to foreign factories that manufactured bead nuclei for use in pearl culturing.

Supplying the world with buttons

The freshwater pearl button industry in the United States flourished at the end of the 19th century, thanks to the ready availability of pearl mussels and cheap local labor. By 1905 button makers in Muscatine, Iowa, alone produced 1.5 billion buttons--almost 40 percent of the buttons produced in the entire world. And in 1916, the peak year of button production, U.S. factories, primarily based in Iowa, New York and New Jersey, turned out six billion buttons worth some $12.5 million. The industry employed 9,500 factory workers and 9,700 mussel fishers.

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