Button Capital of the World

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

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.

A changing industry

As zippers and plastic buttons brought the decline of the Midwestern pearl button industry, a new market for pearl mussel shells began to emerge. By the 1920s, Japanese pearl culturing farms were importing several hundred tons of pearl mussel shells each year to be cut into nuclei for implanting into marine pearl oysters. Shell material, essentially identical in composition to nacre, is ideally suited for this purpose because of its whiteness and because it can be easily drilled. By 1960, pearl mussel shells had become a major export for states along the Mississippi River. At its height in 1993, the industry exported nearly 7,000 tons of shells. This region remains the major source of nuclei for use in pearl culturing worldwide.