Who’s Pushing Your Buttons?

Pearl buttons – Once made in “The Pearl City” of Muscatine, Iowa


Greetings from Muscatine, Iowa.  With a couple days off from work and some comfortable January weather, it seemed like a great time for a van trek and to visit my buddy Johnnie.

I recently found out that Muscatine was famous 100 years ago for making pearl buttons.  They have a cool museum in the downtown area devoted to this important piece of the area’s history.  Though the museum was not open (winter hours), one of the employees was kind enough to let me in.  I’ll share some of what was learned.

Pearl buttons were in great demand a number of years ago because of their beauty, fashion appeal, and durability.  In 1891, a German craftsman, John Boepple, opened a factory in Muscatine to produce buttons using the shells from freshwater Mississippi mussels.

Shells that had “blanks” cut from them


The button making process itself was fairly simple…  Once the mussels were gathered, they were steamed to remove the live critter inside, and then soaked for a week in water.  Shells had circular “blanks” cut out and the disks (about the size of a coin) were machined and polished into buttons. The beautiful material inside the shell was called “Mother of Pearl” and, depending on the species, had striking iridescent hues.  For other needs, some of the buttons were dyed to other shades.

There was another incentive to open the shells.  If a lucky fisherman was to discover a perfect pearl while gathering clams and mussels, it might be worth thousands of dollars.  Rumor has it that more than one house was paid for with a lucky find!

As you can see, the industry was almost like a mini gold rush.  More and more factories opened – 49 in all.  At its peak, Muscatine produced 1.5 BILLION pearl buttons per year… That’s 1/3 of the buttons fabricated worldwide.

A Mississippi Mussel


Sadly, the harvesting activity depleted the Mississippi’s population of mussels in fairly short order.  Each mussel takes years to develop and demand was exceeding natural production.  Shells were shipped in from other rivers including the Arkansas, Ohio, and Tennessee waterways. 
With the advent of plastic fabrication, pearl button making died out…  Plastic was cheaper and easier to work with and held up to modern laundering processes.  Some factories tried to switch to plastic but could not compete with the cheap foreign labor.  Sounds familiar…  By the end of the 1960s, the industry died out.

John Boeppel spent the rest of his life working in a small hatchery upstream near Fairport as a shell expert.  Efforts were made to try and save the population of mussels but with all the sewage and industrial pollution in the river, the mussels perished.

By coincidence, the nearby Fairport state park is also now a favorite camping destination, particularly during the winter when a spot can be had for a mere $11 including electricity!  The scenery along the Mississippi river is gorgeous.

Camping at Fairport state park… $11 including electricity and scenery!

I’ve got some other Muscatine pictures but will save them for tomorrow or the next day.  Thanks for riding along and checking out the scenery.  Muscatine is a beautiful place – it’s well worth visiting!

Bradford the “Van Trekker”


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