The Gold Rush of the Midwest

One year they choose a Pearl Button Queen!

Did you know that Muscatine, Iowa is famous as the Pearl Button empire of the world?  Farming the Mississippi River for the iridescent shells of clams and mussels. The buttons they made brought this industry to this River town.

I first toured the National Pearl Button Museum back in 2017. Then, just recently we visited again when I was hosted by Jodi Hansen of Visit Muscatine.  We stayed at the beautiful Hotel Merrill during our stay.

Dustin Joy, Director of the museum provided my husband Keith and I with a tour. The museum has been updated since my visit.

This is a picture of a farmer using hooks on a rail bar to catch mussels at the museum. This method caught both the good and bad alike.

The Gold Rush!

When I toured in 2017, Terry Eagle, the then Assistant Director of the Discover History & Industry Center in Muscatine, Iowa, game me a tour. He shared, “The Goldrush of the Midwest was Mother of Pearl.”

Mother of Pearl was found in the clams and mussels along the Mississippi River in Muscatine. The discovery made Muscatine the Pearl Button Capital of the World!  

John Boepple

“The pearl button industry was a huge deal before plastic,” current museum director Dustin Joy said.  “There were pearl and wooden buttons.”  It all started with John Boepple, a German immigrant that made buttons in Germany from Ocean shells bones and horns.  He had trouble getting shells and he got two from Muscatine and learned they were plentiful there.”

Boepple realized that these freshwater mollusks could provide him an expansive supply of Mother of Pearl that could start a button empire.

Mussels become a product for pearl buttons

Knowing the habits and needs of mussels, he determined just where the Mississippi would break. Boepple knew about the slow-moving currents where the mussels would thrive.  He came to Muscatine in the 1890’s arrived and set to work.  Previously the mussels were just considered a navigational problem.  

It wasn’t long before Boepple started making buttons and others took notice.  More people ordered more buttons. Previously they had relied on lumber, logging and farming. Now they had a new industry boom.  Once the industry got rolling, Dustin added, “1.5 billion buttons were made yearly by 1905. One third of the world’s buttons came from Muscatine. That would be a 2,000-mile-high stack of buttons!”

The pearl button industry is born!

Nineteen states around Iowa shipped to Muscatine. With so much business Boepple started hiring clammers up and down the river. As expected, this affected the mussel and clam population and would eventually devastate the supply.  At this time though the industry exploded. Some locals made a living clamming, while others would simply supplement their income.  Sometimes, the clammer even found a pearl!

Dustin said that they began making blanks at the shell locations to save on shipping.

One of the pearl buttons machines.

Dustin showed us the machines that were used and the progress of the button industry. Keith was fascinated to learn that the wringer washer was part of the reason that the pearl button died out. The buttons could not survive the wringer!

We enjoyed seeing the life history of the mussels as well. My favorite aspect was the beautiful jewelry and artistic aspect of the museum!

At the museum, I was fascinated by the clamming camps and the whole lifestyle that surrounded this fraught and nomadic life. Besides the clammers, there were Blankers, finishers and more.

The pearl button reign ends

The Boepple’s had a great machine, but he was not forward thinking and didn’t jump on the band wagon when electricity came into play. Another family however, an Irish family, by the name of Barry mechanized the equipment and sold them to families who set up their own shops.

Boepples lack of industrialization eventually caught up with him and his shop closed, however his knowledge later came in handy, and he was hired to advise when they created a hatchery to try to reintroduce the mussel population. Dustin said unbelievably that Boepples died when he cut his foot on a mussel shell and got an infection. He lived and died by the mussel!

McKee and Weber were the longest lasting companies to keep producing the pearl buttons. They produced plastic buttons into the 2000’s.

This is an example of art made from pearl buttons at the museum.

Muscatine Industry and more

Industry on the upper floor!

There is so much history here, and upstairs is the Center of Industry that shows the industry that has grown up in Muscatine. On the landing on the way up I learned that Norman Baker who ended up at Eureka Springs got his start in Muscatine. He was a shyster who said he had a cure for cancer.

The Bayer Crop Science, Kent Corp and Carver all got their starts in Muscatine as well as Thompson Motor Corp. Musco Lighting and Stanley Consultants and HON Company also began in this area! It is amazing how many industries’ rose from the Iowa river base right here in Muscatine. It is all captured in the Center of Industry!

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