Here at Farmhouse Fabrics we adore our mother of pearl buttons. We get a lot of joy from finding unique vintage treasure troves of buttons and sorting them out to sell to y’all…we always say it’s the thrill of the hunt!
When we think about all the work and history behind a mother of pearl button we appreciate them even more (if that’s possible!). We thought we would share our research with our readers.
Mother of pearl buttons are cut from shells. There was a time when approximately 37% of the world’s buttons came from the shells of freshwater mollusks found in the Mississippi River just off the coast of the town of Muscatine, Iowa.
A German button manufacturer named John Frederick Boepple came to the United States to avoid tariffs and to find a steady source of shell. He found that the bend of the Mississippi River near Muscatine caused shells to accumulate-perfect conditions for mother of pearl button making.
With the invention of the new “double automatic” machine, production took off. Over half the town of Muscatine was employed in the button industry in some way. Some people worked in the river harvesting the mollusks, steaming them, and opening the shells. Others punched the blank discs from the shimmery shell insides to send off to the plants, while others worked in the plants themselves with the double automatic machines drilling the button holes and carving button designs. Some mothers and children even worked from home sewing buttons to cards for the manufacturers.
At peak production in 1905, around 1.5 billion buttons were produced annually in Muscatine. Leftover shells were so common they were used to pave the streets!
Eventually, different factors caused the decline of the mother of pearl button industry. The shells in the river were depleted and the production of plastic buttons became cheaper and more popular. Today, many of the mother of pearl buttons are produced in Asia from different kinds of shells. However, we still carry vintage Muscatine Iowa mother of pearl buttons! We know a treasure when we see one!
Take a look at our mother of pearl buttons (vintage and modern) online here!