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BOEPPLE, John

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John Boepple established the clam shell button industry along the Mississippi River.
BOEPPLE, John. (Hamburg, Germany, July 23, 1854--Muscatine, IA, Jan. 30, 1912). Boepple learned the family business of manufacturing buttons from horn, shell or other materials in Germany. (1) When tariffs put him out of business, he traveled to the United States to find cheaper shell. In 1887 after several attempts in other rivers, he found the perfect MUSSELS in the MISSISSIPPI RIVER near Muscatine, Iowa. (2) These offered an an usually thick layer of mother-of-pearl. (3)

Boepple found little local interest in manufactured buttons from local shell. He finally convinced William Molis of Muscatine to advance him $15.00 to ship his crude shell-cutting machine from Columbus Junction to Muscatine. (4) In 1890, after Molis and Boepple had formed a partnership, the McKinley Tariff was passed making imported ocean shell too expensive for buttons. (5) Boepple's plans to use shell from the Mississippi suddenly became economical--and very popular. Mr. Molis traveled to New Jersey to purchase twelve button-cutting machines but found them to be inferior. I. A Kerr invented an improvement to Boepple's shell-cutter and was brought into the partnership in 1891. (6)

By 1897, three hundred people were fishing for mussels between Burlington and Clinton. (7) In that year, Boepple, considered an authority on pearl button manufacturing in the United States, was asked to testify before the House of Representative's Ways and Means Committee. He used the opportunity to support the Dingley Bill which protected American pearl button manufacturers. (8) With this legislative support, button factories opened from St. Paul, Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana. Muscatine alone had fifty-three button-cutting shops using over 3,500 tons of shell annually. (9) In 1905 the city produced 1.5 billion pearl buttons annually. (10)

Boepple by this time had problems with his partners. He opposed new automation and was certain others were stealing his ideas. To confuse competitors, he purchased unnecessary equipment and chemicals. (11) As early as 1899 Boepple even offered to bring his company to Dubuque if the city would reimburse his moving expense. This, however, never occurred. Instead the IROQUOIS PEARL BUTTON COMPANY, a competitor, opened its business.

Driven from the company he started, Boepple became a buyer of shells for other companies. While visiting Dubuque in 1902, he expressed his alarm at the detrimental effects the industry was having on the supply of mussels in the river. In 1910 he began work for the Fairport Biological Station founded by Congress in 1908 to study ways of re-establishing the population of mussels. (12) Ironically, Boepple later cut his foot on a piece of clam shell and died from the resulting infection. (13)

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Sources:

1. "John Boepple: Father of Muscatine's Pearl Button Industry," http://helpdesk.muscatine.k12.ia.us/pearlbuttons/p2.htm

2. Hudson, David; Bergman, Marvin; Horton, Loren. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008 p. 53

3. "Pearls of the Midwest: John Boepple's Story," http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/pearls/midwest4.html

4. "Founder of Button Industry Succumbs at Local Hospital," Muscatine (Iowa) Journal, June 31, 1912, p. 4 http://iagenweb.org/muscatine/articles/jfboepple.htm

5. Hudson, "The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa," p. 53

6. "Founder of Button Industry Succumbs at Local Hospital," Muscatine (Iowa) Journal, June 31, 1912, p. 4 http://iagenweb.org/muscatine/articles/jfboepple.htm

7. Ibid.

8. "Founder of Button Industry Succumbs at Local Hospital," Muscatine (Iowa) Journal, June 31, 1912, p. 4 http://iagenweb.org/muscatine/articles/jfboepple.htm

9. Hudson, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, p. 53

10. "Pearl Button Capital of the World," Muscatine History and Industry Center, http://www.muscatinehistory.org/pearl_button_industry.html

11. Hudson, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, p. 53

12. "The Pearl Button Story--Iowa Pathways," http://www.iptv.org/iowapathways/mypath.cfm?ounid=ob_000031

13. Hudson, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, p. 54