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  Demise of the Button Industry

"The river is playing out." - Mussel gatherer, 1912.

The Japanese Go to image of Japanese Pearl Buttons returned to the button market in 1926 with buttons made of celluloid, new plastics, metal, and ivory nut (the seed of the South American tagua palm Phytelepas macrocarpa). By 1929 American button makers earned only $5.3 million. The situation deteriorated in 1930 with the introduction of the zipper and metal clasps.

By 1930, local mussel sources were depleted, partly from over-harvesting, but also from the killing of mussels by the increasingly polluted water coming down the Illinois River from the Chicago Sanitary Canal. The Illinois River was filling with silt as more land was cultivated for agriculture. Factories had to ship in shells from as far away as Arkansas to keep the factories running. The market continued to fall as costs increased and plastics flooded the market. Go to audio of end of the button industry

the Boyd button factory
1943 High River at Boyd Button Factory
Meredosia River Museum Collection
Zoom in on the Boyd button factory
The 1940s saw the introduction of automatic washers and dryers, the heat from which caused pearl buttons to yellow and exfoliate. The fashion industry now used automatic sewing machines to sew on buttons. These machines required buttons to have precisely shaped and spaced holes, which was not always the case with pearl buttons because there were still many hand-shaping steps in their manufacturing process. While each laborer in a pearl button factory could turn out about 3,300 buttons per day, a plastic molding machine could turn out 5,000 per minute.

This disparity caused a final decline in the domestic pearl button production except for the manufacture of novelty and specialty pearl buttons. The remaining shell button factories either phased into the production of other types of buttons, such as plastic, or closed down. The last Illinois River button plant Go to image of a map of button blank factories closed in 1948 because of these market forces and the dwindling supply of mussels from increasingly polluted rivers.

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