Button, Button, Who’s Got ‘Em? The Button Museum, That’s Who!

Is there a jar of buttons in your sewing room? Here’s a story about a small museum with a big history.

Pearl buttons are cooler than plastic. And not just because they bring a tiny gleam to the dresses and shirts onto which they’re stitched. If you put your pearl button up to your cheek and then do the same with a plastic one, you’ll notice an actual difference in temperature.

That’s just one of the things I learned when I visited the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa. I also discovered that pearl buttons are heavier than plastic, and that they make a different sound as they slide through your fingers.As a transplanted Californian who spent her childhood obsessively collecting shells, I’d always assumed that lustrous, white mother-of-pearl buttons came from the ocean. But there was a time when 37 percent of the world’s buttons (in 1905, that was 1.5 billion buttons) came from the glossy inner surfaces of freshwater mollusk shells harvested by citizens of this small town on the Mississippi River.

Muscatine’s downtown today is a sleepy place, with brick buildings on a quiet main street just a block from the river. The Pearl Button Museum isn’t large: on a single floor you can see the flat-bottom boats used to harvest mussels and the machinery to cut, drill, and polish the button “blanks.” You can try your hand at sewing buttons on a card, dip your fingers in buckets of buttons, and count out a gross (144 buttons) with a specially indented wooden paddle.

Exhibits include equipment for clamming and making buttons. Posters of button cards hang from the ceiling.

Historical photos provide insight into a town in which half the workforce (including many children) worked in the button industry. After the mussels were collected—a process known as clamming—men and women worked in camps along the water heating and opening the mussels, removing the meat and any irregular-shaped freshwater pearls (called “slugs”) they were lucky enough to find. Hundreds of men worked in the cutting shops, cutting blanks—the basic shape of the button—from the shiny inner surface of the shells, while others operated machinery that carved designs on the blanks and drilled the holes. Women shaped fancier buttons against rotating emery wheels and removed the dark surface or “bark” on buttons by machine; sorted buttons by color, iridescence, and size; and sewed them onto cards. The dozens of factories in town ranged from the Hawkeye Button Company that in 1911 employed 800 people and had offices in New York and St. Louis to myriad mom-and-pop operations: men cut and drilled buttons in garages and sheds behind their homes while women sorted and sewed them on cards in their living rooms.

The riverbanks and alleys of Muscatine were piled high with leftover shells. Tons were crushed to create street surfaces, fertilizer, stucco, and even gravel for the bottom of fish bowls. Kristin McHugh-Johnston, former director of the Muscatine History and Industry Center, said that when she worked in her garden eight blocks from the river, she still sometimes dug up a shell from which buttons were cut.While Muscatine takes pride in its button heritage—a 28-foot tall bronze sculpture of a “clammer” hoists his clamming forks above the downtown riverfront—museum displays acknowledge that creating these pearl lovelies was a dirty, dangerous, and low-paying business. Advances in button-making machinery ensured Muscatine’s reign as the “Pearl Button Capitol of the World” for decades, but eventually Mississippi mussels were fished to scarcity and freshwater and ocean shells had to be shipped  to Muscatine for cutting. Plastic buttons, zippers, changes in fashion, and foreign competition led to a decline in the industry. The last Muscatine pearl button was cut in 1967, though production began to slow in the 1930s. Just one button company remains in Muscatine today, producing resin buttons.

Today, most pearl buttons are made in Asia from clam, mussel, agoya, and abalone shells. Designs are cut with lasers and dyed buttons often receive a polyester coating to protect their surface. Elaborate fusions of rhinestones, plastics, and pearl create elegant buttons, unimaginable in Muscatine’s pearl button heyday.

A reproduction poster of a button card.

Still, when I’m at a flea market or antique shop and happen upon those simple, shiny vintage disks, I feel a thrill of pleasure: finding a Blue Bonnet or Lucky Day brand button card adorned with a drawing of a laughing baby or the placket of a manly shirt reminds me of all that I’ve learned about pearl buttons (and about my adopted state). I hold the card to my cheek and the cool surface of the lustrous discs assures me that this is the real thing.

This story originally appeared on Etsy’s blog on June 7, 2010. 

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18 comments on “Button, Button, Who’s Got ‘Em? The Button Museum, That’s Who!

  1. Janet says:

    That’s a neat story! I will be on the lookout for some of those “cool” buttons!

  2. patty says:

    Thanks for the education. I will not take buttons for granted! There is a museum in Dover Ohio that is about the worlds master carver Moody Warther. Moody carved trains and knives while his wife collected buttons. His wife would mount the buttons on cardboard in different designs. There is a little building visitors can go into that has her restored collection of mounted buttons from floor to ceiling and covering the ceiling. It seems Mrs. Warther appreciated the beauty of pearl buttons too!

  3. Laura says:

    I’m from Davenport, Iowa (which is just up the river from Muscatjne) and had no idea about this museum. I will definitely be adding this to my list of ‘must sees’ on my next visit. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Little Quiltsong says:

    Thank you Linzee! I found this so interesting and did not realize how those pearl buttons came about – wow. Now you will have me searching through my mother’s button box and elsewhere for these treasures :)!!

  5. Virginia Marshall says:

    Loved the story! My button jar has always been special to me…3 generations contributed to it! Will put Muscatine on my list of places to visit! Thanks.

  6. Barb Brandt says:

    Muscatine, Iowa is a short ride downriver from me (by boat or car!) and is rich in river lore and history. River “pearl” buttons do have a luster and heft, almost like glass, that sets them apart from other buttons and are a beautiful addition to any sewing or craft project. Thanks for sharing some history of this humble but important sewing notion!

  7. Margaret says:

    Could you please tell me how to contact whoever handles tech help? I keep trying to subscribe via email, but never get the email that I need to confirm. I don’t see anything on the webpage that tells how to contact the powers that be. Thanks!

  8. Susan K says:

    My son lives in nearby Blue Grass. Next time we visit we’ll have to visit the museum. Interesting

  9. Lynette says:

    My daughter lives in the country just outside Muscatine. I will most definitely plan a visit on my next trip! Great article

  10. Bridget says:

    So when I was young and reading Nancy Drew, there was a mystery story that featured the river mussel button making. 🙂 Of course I don’t remember the name of it! Now I know the real town where the story was set.

    • Linzee McCray says:

      That is so interesting Bridget, because Mildred Wirt Benson, who was the writer behind many of the early Nancy Drew books, was the first woman to receive a master’s degree at the University of Iowa School of Journalism in Iowa City. So she would have studied about 50 miles from Muscatine and the button factories (although a bit later than their glory years). Here’s a little piece I wrote about her for the Cutting Table awhile back: http://blog.modafabrics.com/2013/01/get-the-lowdown-on-nancy-drew/
      Thanks so much for sharing that memory. I love these kinds of connections!

  11. Mary Ann Lov says:

    Guttenburg, Iowa also had a button factory years ago.

  12. Marge Berg says:

    Who knew the button would have such an interesting history. Thanks for the information will look at my buttons with new respect.

  13. Beautiful! Have to put this museum on our bucket list. We have been to a lace museum down near San Jose CA. It was very educational. Thank you for sharing this great article!

  14. Mary Ann Scanlon says:

    So interesting! I love to read these kinds of stories and often wonder what these hardworking folks would think of manufacturing today. I imagine they would be at the forefront learning computer code and running new machinery!

  15. Susan says:

    Loved the interesting story and to hear about Nancy Drew as well! Would love to visit the factory some day, but I live out in Northern California. It’s great that the museum is taken care of and still exists! Thanks so much!

  16. Linda P says:

    I loved reading about these buttons! Just a couple days ago, a friend was telling me about her collecting and told me Colt (the gun manufacturer) used to make buttons, I forgot to ask, and meant to look it up – do you know? I still have a couple bags of shell buttons in a bag that Moda sold a few years back (maybe 10 yr) I’ve used a few but love to see them sitting in my room. Thanks for a great read.

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