The pearl button industry

  • Photo

Clam shell gatherers were the front line in the booming pearl button business in 1897. Congress that year approved a favorable tariff law, the Dingley Act, giving American manufacturers an advantage over imports and making the business of button-making very profitable.

Button factories began springing up in Iowa towns, especially those near rivers, because the supply of raw materials was seen as almost inexhaustible.

Clammers dug the clams out of river beds by dragging hooks along the bottom. The clams, which were open to feed, would grab the hooks as they passed over and hold on.

The mollusks then were pulled from the river, boiled and pried open to remove the meat inside, and the shells shipped to button factories.

“Until recently the people of the United States have depended entirely upon foreign pearl buttons, but in coming years the millions of dollars spent for these goods will remain at home and benefit American labor,”

The Gazette reported in November 1897.

North American freshwater clam shells were lined with an iridescent mother of pearl layer perfect for making pearl buttons.

John Frederick Boepple, a German button maker, wanted to move close to the source of these clams. He settled in Muscatine and opened a button factory in 1891. The business grew quickly and competitors soon were copying his methods.

The industry eventually employed the majority of Muscatine's residents as well as hundreds of clammers on the river. Muscatine became known as the pearl button capital of the world.

C.R. button Factory

A few years after Muscatine's button boom began, brothers Fred and Duncan Stuart decided to get in on the trend. By September 1897, the brothers' cooperative pearl button factory was in the process of being built a mile and a half north of Cedar Rapids.

The articles of incorporation showed the employees as major stockholders. As the power was being installed and a shipment of 10 saws was on the way, clammers were setting up camp on the Cedar River.

The factory paid $8 to $10 per ton for shells from the river. About 50 tons was needed to last through winter when the river iced over.

Eventually the company would have to import shells from the coasts for production of a fancier grade of buttons, but the clams in local waterways were considered good enough for average use.

The payroll included 28 people as well as the payments to the men and boys working the river for shells.

The factory caught fire in December, just as it was beginning to show a profit. The fire started with an acetylene gas machine that had sprung a leak. As plant manager Duncan Stuart and finisher J.H. Vellers approached the machine, lanterns in hand, the escaping gas caught fire, causing an explosion. Both men suffered burns, but the rest of the employees escaped. Damage, estimated at $2,000, was not covered by insurance because of the factory's distance from fire protection.

Rebuilding plans were put on hold while the manager tried to find financing. Brewer Christian Magnus came to the rescue a few weeks later. His proposition: He would build a factory on vacant lots between A and B avenues on north Third Street.

Cedar Rapids had two other button factories, both on South First Street: Iowa Pearl Button Co. and Keystone Pearl Button Co.

By 1916, the United States was producing close to 6 billion buttons a year.

Mississippi River Business

Empire Buttonworks was one of four button factories in Guttenberg. It opened on the town's Mississippi River bank in 1909. Its manager, Chris Frommelt, started the factory for the Empire City Pearl Button Works of New York.

The stone building that housed the factory already was 50 years old and had been used as a granary. At its peak, the factory employed 50 button cutters and carders and made buttons by the millions.
The factory closed Nov. 29, 1960. As with most other button factories, the closure left behind huge piles of cut shells heaped up next to the plant waiting to be hauled away.

The building was used for a while as a place to store and repair boats. It was remodeled into a motel in 1999.

Another Mississippi River factory, this one in Lansing, was started by retired steamboat Capt. Jeremiah Turner in 1897.

Starting as Turner Button Factory, it manufactured clam shell button blanks for other factories to finish. By 1907, Turner's grandson, Leo Hufschmidt, was a partner in the company that now was called Lansing Button Works.

In 1938, the company stopped manufacturing buttons. It developed a machine that attached buttons to cards, a process previously done by hand, and that became the company's main business.

About that time, plastic buttons started appearing. In 1943, John Brophy, Hufschmidt's nephew, bought a computer and hired a programmer to keep track of the thousands of varieties of buttons it now was buying, grading and carding. Instead of a button factory, the company, now Lansing Co. Inc., was a wholesaler.

 

The company became the second largest wholesaler in the country and was purchased by the parent company of the largest wholesaler, B. Blumenthal Co. of Carlstad, N.J., in 1986.

END Of the Road

A latecomer in the button industry, Monticello saw its first button factory open in 1947. It was a division of the Automatic Button Co., which had its headquarters in Muscatine. A few dozen workers, mostly women, cut button blanks from shells.

But the button boom already was waning. The development of plastic buttons along with cheap imports and the over-harvesting of clams from the rivers spelled the end of the pearl button industry.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; diane.langton@sourcemedia.net

Like what you're reading?

We make it easy to stay connected:

to our email newsletters
Download our free apps

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.