HISTORY OF THE PEARL BUTTON BUSINESS
IN MEREDOSIA, ILLINOIS
Written by Mr. Howard Edlen, Meredosia
The pearl button business was one of the many industries in the early days of Illinois. It had a tremendous impact on Illinois and many small towns along the Illinois river, like Meredosia. It is not known just how early the button industry started in Meredosia but it is known to have been in progress in early 1900.
The button industry was a wonderful business. Once you got into the business it was hard to get away. It gets in your blood, so they say. The center or heart of the button industry was Muscatine, Iowa. All the main finishing plants were there. Years ago there were several button companies such as V.S. Button Co., Hawkeye Button Co., Automatic Button Co., Weber Button Co., McGee Button Co., and possibly more. Each company had small independent plants around the country which cut button blanks and sold to the finishing plants in Muscatine alone. There were many button factories in Illinois along the Illinois River. There were plants in Beardstown, Meredosia, Naples, Pearl, Kampsville, and at Cairo and Metropolis on the Ohio River. There were 27 different jobs in the making of a pearl button from the time the shell was dug from the river until the finished product.
There were three button plants in Meredosia. The name of the first one is not known, but the second was the Mayes and Mullen plant which later was bought out by Mr. Mayes. This plant was in operation before 1912 and closed about the year 1930. Casey Jones who lives in Meredosia started cutting buttons there in 1912 and cut until 1948. In 1927 John (Glick) Edlen and Wilbur Boyd opened a plant. They operated in partnership until 1930 at which time Wilbur Boyd bought the business.
Elden and Boyd used to transport mussel shells into Meredosia by river boat. The shells were bought up and down the river and hauled here by river barge which were pushed by the tug boat named “Red Wing” owned by John (Glick) Edlen. Then in later years the Red Wing gave way to progress and the truck. Wilbur Boyd owned his own truck and hauled his own shells and hauled shells for the Automatic Button Company.
There are many people in Meredosia as well as up and down the river who used to cut buttons. There was an art to cutting buttons. Some men never could learn to cut good buttons. Button cutting was considered a good job. Button cutters got paid by piece work, so the harder you worked the more you earned.
You had to cut a good quality button blank. Each week your buttons were weighed and tested for quality and size. If they did not meet requirements the cutter would be docked. If you docked a cutter too much he sure didn’t hesitate to tell you so.
There are many cutters left in Meredosia but the older cutters to mention a few are Ray Wade who started in 1917, Bill Harbert, 1908, Irvin Smith and Casey Jones, 1912.
For many years the only industry in Meredosia was the button industry. Wilbur Boyd Button Co. employed as high as 34 people which meant a great deal to the economy of Meredosia in the 30's and 40's.
Many of the local fishermen also dug shells for a living. They sold these shells to the button factories. The prices varied from three dollars in the early years to 55 dollars a ton. During World War II they quit using the Illinois River shells and bought mostly Wabash River shells which were considered a better quality. Wilbur Boyd hauled shells from many places on the Wabash River, The Fox River by Dundee, Ill., Tennessee River, Arkansas River, White River, in Indiana. Most of the shells sold for about $50 per ton but there were some that came out of the Fox River at Dundee, Ill., that sold for as high as $125 per ton.
The last shells bought from the Illinois River was in 1946 at Hardin, Illinois. Wilbur Boyd bought 100 ton of shells, but couldn't use them or sell them until the fall of 1948. He sold the 100 tons of shells to the Automatic Button Co. But that 100 ton of shells is still laying where they were unloaded in 1948.
By 1947 the button industry was beginning to feel the force of the plastic button and zippers. So it had to try to modernize. So they started to experiment on new machinery which could produce much faster. Everything was mass production.
All the big finishing plants had closed except the Automatic Button Co. They were the last of the great industry. In late 1947 the Automatic had opened a new button plant at Monticello, Iowa, with all new modern machinery. Wilbur Boyd was offered a job of managing the plant for them. It was apparent then that the day of the independent plants were running short. So, he moved to Monticello to mange their plant and his son, James Boyd managed his father's plant in Meredosia. The Meredosia Button factory operated until September 1948 at which time it had to close. The Wilbur E. Boyd Button Co. was the last independent button factory in the U.S. It was the last of a great industry. But the pearl button business had lived a long and great life, but finally had to make way or give in to progress, the plastic button.