The Pearl Button Capital of the World

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa was one of the most important places in the world. Not only because here was the worldwide source of nearly 40% of all pearl buttons, but because a conflict was brewing that would have consequences for workers throughout the world. In Muscatine, I learned about the process of making pearl buttons, the importance of Mississippi River mussels to worldwide fashion, and an interesting point-of-view on factory-worker relations.

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But first, a quick tour through the history of apparel: Before the nineteenth century, people used cloth ties or buttons made of bone or wood to fasten their clothing. In the late 1800s wealthy people could afford “pearl” buttons, drilled and carved from freshwater mussels. Here’s Wikipedia on the subject:

The North American button industry began with a German craftsman named John Boepple, who had made buttons from seashells, horns and antlers in his native country. John Boepple immigrated to the United States in 1887 and found that there were vast beds of thick freshwater mussel shells in Muscatine, Iowa, which he determined were perfect for making “pearl buttons”. By 1891, Boepple had set up a shop and was in business as a craftsman making buttons. John Boepple’s buttons became popular locally and to ward off competition he was very protective of the secrets of his trade. Since freshwater mussels were so common and the profit potential in making “pearl” buttons was so high, some of Boepple’s staff who knew his techniques were “recruited” by other businessmen to start competing businesses. Within a few years there were button factories along the length of the Mississippi River.

At the turn of the 20th Century, 1.5 billion pearl buttons were produced annually in Muscatine, the undisputed Pearl Button Capital of the World.

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“Pearl” buttons drilled, cut, and carved from freshwater mussels

At some point late on a Sunday afternoon, I stumbled into the Muscatine History and Industry Center. They had really just closed and I was lucky enough that the director Mary Wildermuth gave me a personal tour.

In general, freshwater mussels were caught with hooks on long bars dragged along the bottom. The mussel meat was boiled out (sometimes fed to hogs, but usually thrown back into the river) and the empty shells were barged or carted to a button-making town like Muscatine. A cottage industry of drillers drilled out the button blanks, first by treadle power, then later electric power. The blanks would be sorted, carved, polished, drilled for button holes, and sometimes dyed at button factories. Another cottage industry, mostly of women and children would sew the buttons onto cards for sale.

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Juvenile Sewers and Carriers Union or Muscatine Iowa, 1911

I already knew a little bit about “clamming” second hand from Karen Galema whose mom and aunts worked in the button industry in the early 20th century and from Terry Sikes and Dallas Valley who were part of the clamming goldrush of the late 20th century. But other than some basic raw details of how pearl buttons are made, I didn’t know much about the button-making industry itself. I had lots of questions about details of the button-making process that found answers, but I found the labor history surrounding the button industry in Muscatine most interesting.

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What the Button Workers Want, striker demands in the 1911 Muscatine button workers strike

In the early 1900’s, the labor force in Muscatine was dominated by button factory workers that according to the state’s labor commissioner a large majority were exposed to labor conditions that were were hazardous to their health and safety, including fire traps, unguarded machinery, and unsanitary conditions. No wage or hourly protection existed for women workers who made up a large percentage of the button industry, and though prohibited by law, 2,500 children fifteen years and younger worked in the factories. There were reports of women fourteen and fifteen cleaning machines in motion, breathing unfiltered shell dust. There were disputes about the system of weighing, counting and payment said by workers to be unfair. Accusations of sexual harassment and sexual coercion of women workers by factory employees and managers also emerged.

Trade unions that were established earlier established were slow to organize in Muscatine. It was far from urban centers and the size of the factories was relatively small. But in late 1910, local labor organizers formed the Muscatine Button Workers Protective Union. In response, 25 of the major button manufacturers and nearly all of the small factories shut their doors and locked out workers indefinitely. Despite claims by factories that the shutdown was due to overproduction and a drop in demand, manufacturers offered reemployment to those workers who destroyed their union cards. The media referred to the conflict alternately as a lockout and a strike.

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Muscatine labor organizer Pearl McGill, friend of socialist Helen Keller, later murdered possibly for her organizing activities.

The labor conflict attracted national attention. Labor leaders, Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, “Big Bill” Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World, and socialist Helen Keller offered support for the strike. Local organizer Pearl McGill helped organize the Muscatine strikers and then later moved on to the national stage to help organize workers elsewhere.

After four months, the state government got involved after reports of violence against non-union “scab” workers brought in by the factories. New laws were passed prohibiting public assembly of more than three people.  The local sheriff brought in “strike-breakers” to help control the regular riots. The arrival of the Pinkertons caused greater riots especially after reports that a strike-breaker had kicked a child. Local police attempted to defend the strike-breakers who were driven back to their hotel. The strikers threatened to burn down the entire hotel unless the strike-breakers were removed. The Pinkertons were removed but the state militia was sent in instead.

After 18 months, the strike/lockout dissolved with neither side claiming victory. Interestingly, in 1933 a revived union launched a new and massive strike that improved working conditions for the button workers in Muscatine. However, by that time, the pearl button industry was on the decline.

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Terry Eagle, Assistant Director of the Muscatine History and Industry Center

Mary from the museum put me in touch with Muscatine native, Terry Eagle, the museum’s assistant director, who had an interesting take on Muscatine’s labor history. Terry told me that he and everyone raised in Muscatine grew up knowing all about the button strike. Even after a hundred years, Muscatine’s button strike is still a sensitive topic. I had the honor of interviewing Terry about growing up in Muscatine and about town and labor history. He felt that button manufacturers has been vilified unjustly.

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Ted McKee, owner of the McKee Button Factory and son-in-law Terry Eagle

Terry wanted to emphatically emphasize that the strike was part of a wider labor organizing movement at the beginning of the 20th century. He married into a button factory family. He introduced me to his father-in-law, Ted McKee who owns the still operating McKee Button Company. I got a tour of the factory and saw boxes and boxes of the now plastic buttons manufactured by the factory.

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