Pearl Button Factory Tour

A pearl button factory tour of a vintage pearl button cutting business in Muscatine, Iowa.

See the inside of a factory which has been untouched for almost 50 years.

With flashlights in hand, we climbed the dark stairways…

At least 2 floors of the Schmarje building were dedicated to the Ronda Button Company.

Our tour was at 10:00 A.M. on a sunshiny day because the only light remaining on these floors comes from the large windows over-looking the Mississippi River.

The Schmarje family had the foresight to leave this factory basically untouched for 50 years…what a blessing! for those of us interested in this local history.

Inside the factory rooms

From 1942 to 1956 these machines zipped through tons of shells, cutting blanks for buttons.

The new type of button cutting machine, featuring a carbide-toothed saw operating on a vertical shaft enabled workers at the Ronda Button plant to produce top grade blanks at a faster rate than was possible by older methods.

A foot pedal and hydraulic cylinder would lift the base of the machine.

The pearl button factory tour revealed 30 vertical-type cutting machines which were invented by Claus Schmarje. (see photo)

Side view of vertical pearl button factory tour cutting machine

Ron Schmarje by cutting machines.

Ron commented, “Some of the hydraulic cylinders have been cannibalized for our present tool making business.”

On the pearl button factory tour we also saw some of the horizontal cutting machines used to cut button blanks.

Close up of horizontal shell cutting machines

The local pearl button museum has a movie visitors can watch showing workers quickly slipping shells into these cutters so blanks can be cut out from them. (It looked dangerous…)

Various other machines are still in the old factory.

A wooden tumbler for polishing the button blanks. Small wooden pegs were poured inside which soften the edges of the blanks without damaging them.

Ronda Pearl Button Company (see 1948 article) didn’t make the finished buttons, but sent them to other local button factories for completion.

At one time there were close to 50 button companies in Muscatine, Iowa, giving it the title “Pearl Button Capital of the World.”

See colorful finished buttons made in Muscatine.

Boxes of various sizes of carbide-toothed cutters lay waiting to get their teeth into some shells…they’ve been waiting for 50 years and have gotten a little bit dusty…

Unopened sacks of shells

On the pearl button factory tour we saw how shells would arrive at the plant by the tons in burlap sacks.

Shells would come not only from the Mississippi River across the street, but from lots of sources including the Arkansas, White and Tennessee Rivers.

Shells would be sorted into buckets by type. The outsides of some were polished before cutting as those in this photo.

See more about the shells and button blanks on the pearl button factory tour.

This cutting machine would make two parallel cuts at once.

Close up

A western wall lined with machines.

Another machine pointed out to us on the pearl button factory tour.

Horizontal lathe

Machine #4
…notice the buckets of sorted blanks on the floor.

One of the final processes at the Ronda pearl button factory was to sort the button blanks into buckets and then bag them.

Sorted buckets of button blanks

Old burlap sacks bursting their seams with buttons blanks that never made it to the finishing factories…but lay here as a reminder to all of us of the immense work and effort that went into making buttons for our shirts and skirts…

Thank you, Ron Schmarje, for the privilege of going on the pearl button factory tour and for keeping this historical pearl button factory untouched for so many years. Your vintage factory is a treasure that deserves being preserved.

NOTE: This old pearl button factory is a “PEARL” in our midst.

Continue the Ronda Pearl Button Tour

Now…I know you’ll enjoy seeing some close up photos of the shells and button blanks from the pearl button factory tour… click here to view shells and button blanks.

Read 1948 newspaper article about Ronda Button Company.

Return to Pearl Button Factory introduction page.

Read about Schmarje Tool history.

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