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  Growth of the Button Industry

Barges of Mussel Shells
Barges of Mussel Shells Zoom in on Barges of Mussel Shells
Demand continued to increase through the 1890s. Immigrants arriving from Europe wanted to dress like Americans. The women's ready-to-wear market exploded between 1885 and 1917. Styles became more comfortable with the introduction of the shirtwaist and skirt, both of which were designed with many button closures. Men's shirt styles changed from pull-over to button-down-the-front.

A temporary crash in the shell market came in 1898 because of depletion in the mussel population in the Mississippi River and because many small blank cutters were using old machinery that made low quality unusable blanks. This led to consolidation in the industry and sparked the invention of better machines. Musselers found new sources for shells in the Illinois and Wabash Rivers. The industry regained strength until it peaked on the Mississippi River about 1909 with 2600 boats. Two years later there were only four hundred boats working. Then the Wabash River source of mussels dried up and clothing styles changed from using buttons to using novelty fasteners. In 1913, Illinois River tonnage was recorded at 5,890 tons of mussels worth almost $89,000 ($15/ton).

At the peak of button-making activity in 1916, midwestern button manufacturers sold $12.5 million worth of shell buttons Go to image of shell buttons , but the entry of the United States into World War I interrupted the European button trade. This was concurrent with Japanese exportation of cheaper buttons onto the American market, where labor costs were going up. Another tariff protection bill was in force from 1920 to 1922, but demand slowed again when the fashion industry went to pullover styles, novelty closings, and shoes without buttons.

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