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Origins of the Pearl Button Industry

a Button Cutting Set-Up
Button Cutting Set-Up, 1919.
Photograph courtesy U. S. Bureau of Fisheries.
Zoom in on a Button Cutting Set-Up
Before 1890, there was little interest in mussels. Occasional pearl discoveries prompted the sporadic collection of shells. Early mussel gatherers prized pearls and the lustrous nacre of the shells, which made an attractive finish for gift items, brush handles, pistol grips, and jewelry. Irregular pearls, Go to image of irregular pearls called slugs, were sold to makers of costume jewelry.

William Salter, who, in Peoria, Illinois, in 1872, dug several tons of clams and sent them to Europe for assessment as to their possible commercial value, is credited as being the first commercial clammer. Some years later in Germany, John Beopple obtained some of these shells. Knowing only that they came from somewhere about two hundred miles from Peoria, he saw an opportunity for himself in the future. He immigrated to the United States in 1887, heading straight for Petersburg, Illinois, where his sister was living.

He began searching for quality mussels and ended up in Muscatine, Iowa, which would become the center of pearl button making for 40 years. Beopple is credited with being the first American button-maker to use fresh-water shells. He developed some tools and borrowed a friend's (Henry Grau) lathe to start the business, which grew rapidly. Beopple took on partners as the firm grew, partners who saw a chance to mechanize when better machines became available. Beopple resisted mechanization, sold his interest in the firm, and started another button-making venture, but never again succeeded to the level of his first company.

In 1891, the fashion industry started a new trend--the use of pearl buttons Go to image of pearl buttons as the clothing fastener of choice, creating a large market. Fresh-water mussel shells were a cheaper and higher quality source than salt-water shells and other materials such as wood, glass, metal, and bone. Other events helped to create this industry. In 1890, the McKinley Act prohibited the importation of buttons. This protection continued with the Dingley Act of 1897. The design of shell-cutting machines Go to image of shell-cutting machines was improved to work better and faster.

The primary use of shells was the manufacture of buttons, although some shell was made into decorative parts for items such as handles of knives, hairbrushes, and cigarette cases. Illinois River button factories mainly cut the unfinished blanks and shipped them overland to be ground and polished into buttons in much larger facilities, such as those in Muscatine, Iowa that opened in 1891 and transformed musseling from parties of waders searching shallow waters to fleets of motorized boats plucking huge numbers of mussels from the deepest pools.

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