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The industry was brought to this region by John BOEPPLE, a former German button maker, who was accustomed to using animal horn, hooves, bone and seashells. (1) In 1887 while looking for shells that were cheaper than those from the ocean for button production, he found several suitable beds of clams in rivers leading to the Mississippi. (2) In 1891 he established the Boepple Button Company, a pearl-button factory in Muscatine, Iowa. (3) In June 1900 near the mouth of CATFISH CREEK a small colony of clammers developed called "Pearl City." Living in tents, the clammers worked from June through October. (4)
The clams were placed in water and boiled. The meat was removed, checked for pearls, and then discarded or sold to farmers for hog feed or to fishermen for bait. It was also used for dog and cat food. (6) The shells were immediately sold to buyers or shipped to button factories. (7)
The industry caused an economic ripple effect into related industries such as housing and merchandising. Population increased in river cities as workers moved to new jobs that provided attractive year-round working conditions. The industry led to the development of a new group of wealthy Iowans who built mansions and invested their profits throughout their communities.
Dubuque had the advantage of being close to the clam beds. In May, 1898 the Dubuque Herald reported "car loads of our mussel shells are being taken away." The article noted that the shells were destined for Muscatine, Iowa and a large pearl button factory. The article continued--
This new industry certainly opens a line of employment which operates in an entirely new field, and takes away many bushels of shells which had always been considered worthless.. it is said in new territory men can make very good wages at gathering them. (8)
The city also had a large source of labor and connections to cities of the eastern United States by RAILROADS. In March 1889, the Standard Pearl Button Company moved its machinery to Dubuque from Charles City. John Boepple visited Dubuque in 1898 and suggested his interest in moving his entire operation north from Muscatine if his moving expenses were reimbursed. This, however, was never done.
Due to the size of its operation, the Iroquois plant was able to weather the financial collapse of the industry caused by speculation in 1903-1904.
Many factors led to the demise of the pearl button industry. Plastics developed near the time of World War II offered more variety in size, shape, and color than pearl buttons at much less cost. The ability of plastics to withstand detergents in washing has also been suggested. Construction of dams on the Mississippi and poor agricultural practices leading to erosion led to increased silting of the river bottom, a condition that ruined clam beds. In 1899 Iowa produced 20.3 pounds of shells but by 1908 this number had decreased to 4.6 million. (13)
The Chalmers plant in Dubuque closed in 1930. (14)
1. "The Pearl Button Story," Iowa Pathways, Online: http://www.iptv.org/iowapathways/mypath.cfm?ounid=ob_000031
2. Kruse, Len. "Clamshell Buttons--Boom and Bust," My Old Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa: Center for Dubuque History, 2000. p. 252
3. "The Pearl Button Story."
4. Kruse, Len., p. 252
5. Temte, Eric. "A Brief History of the Clamming and Pearling Industry in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Wisconsin State University, 1968 Online: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CE8QFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fminds.wisconsin.edu%2Fbitstream%2Fhandle%2F1793%2F47050%2Ftemteeric1968.pdf&ei=HdGkUumTLInTqgGrmICYAg&usg=AFQjCNEod_ASMrwDxDiBOJyUAbYqIwFiPA&sig2=-8oajsM2VId6YffFcvMBtA
6. "Clamming," East Dubuque Local Area History Project, April 14, 2000, Online: http://www.eastdbqschools.org/archive/District/LocalAreaHistory/Clamminglah.htm
7. Kruse, Len., p. 252
8. "A New Industry," Dubuque Herald, May 1, 1898, p. 8
10. Ibid., p. 253
11. "The Pearl Button Story."
12. Kruse, Len. p. 253
14. Ibid., p. 255