Pearl Buttons

99 Counties | FIND Iowa
Mar 4, 2024 | 00:03:13

What are the pros and cons of making buttons out of mussel shells versus plastic?

Today, buttons are made of plastic. But not too long ago, Muscatine, Iowa was the button capitol of the world. They specialized in making pearl buttons. 


Abby Brown:

The Mississippi River runs along the eastern side of Iowa and has played a very important role in our history. Button up and come along with me as we discover how something so big had such a great part and something so small. This is the city of Muscatine, in Muscatine County. We're at the National Pearl Button Museum. Once upon a time Muscatine was the pearl button capital of the world; that's right, buttons! These small round objects that keep our clothes fastened. How does the Mississippi River, just right down the street from here, play a role in  the history of buttons? The answer is mussel shells, but everybody calls them clamshells.

In 1890 John Bepple, a German immigrant and button maker, started making pearl buttons from clam shells he found in the Mississippi River. It wasn't the pearl inside the shell that made the button, it was the beautiful mother of pearl lining. Back then buttons were very high fashion. If you had fancy buttons, you were very cool. Later on, the Barry Company invented machinery that modernized Bepple's hand-made button-making process. Other people figured out they could harvest clamshells too. Soon boats and workers flooded the area. The process of cutting and drilling holes and clam shells, previously done by hand, became a cutting-edge automated industry that created a job for half of the local workforce in Muscatine. In 1905 Muscatine made 1.5 billion pearl buttons a year for people to use all around the world. Eventually, for many different reasons, the Muscatine button making companies died out. Plastic buttons, produced all over the world, took the place of pearl buttons. But for a very interesting few decades, pearl button production was big business here. You can relive those interesting times at the National Pearl Button Museum and see lots and lots of... you guessed it, pearl buttons!

Every county in Iowa has a fascinating story to tell. Thanks for discovering Muscatine County with me.