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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Pearl Buttons

January 5, 2017

Pearl ButtonsThe pearl button industry began in the US in 1891, with a German immigrant and “button turner” named John Boepple began cutting buttons from freshwater mussels at the Mississippi river town of Muscatine Iowa. The freshwater shells of the Mississippi drainage are composted of a crystalline structure called “nacre” that is both very hard and beautifully lustrous. Mussels had been harvested by Europeans since the 1850 in search of valuable freshwater pearls they sometimes contain. The Mississippi River and its feeder stream contained millions of mussels in dense “beds” and within a few years after 1891, dozens of button factories sprang up in Muscatine and other river towns including La Crosse. The pearl button industry flourished until the 1940’s. Mussels were depleted in the Mississippi watershed by this time, shells had to be brought in on barges from southern rivers. After World War II, plastic buttons were introduced, and shells were no longer used after about 1950.

Shells on the left have had button blanks cut out, these shells were then discarded. Used some times as road fill or ground into calcium feed for chickens. Piles of these were still to be found at Muscatine Iowa in 1983, when Jim Theler collected these.

On the right are the cards of pearl buttons dating to circa 1920-1930.

(Entry by Dr. James Theler)