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Encyclopedia Dubuque

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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.




BUTTON INDUSTRY

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Button making from clam shells was once one of the largest industries in eastern Iowa.
Clam tongs. Photo courtesy: Putnam Museum, Davenport, Iowa
Shells like these from which button blanks were removed may still be found along the Mississippi River.
BUTTON INDUSTRY. From the late 1890s until WORLD WAR II, the manufacture of buttons from MISSISSIPPI RIVER clam shells was a flourishing enterprise in eastern Iowa.

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)

Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
Clamming was a low cost operation. Using a boat, a clammer would drag a rod with perhaps one hundred hooks along the river bottom. The clams would snap shut on the hook and be caught. The rod would be raised, the clams removed and the process repeated. Once the boat was full, it would be rowed to shore and unloaded. A clammer could earn three dollars for a full boat with the chance of finding a pearl which could bring one hundred dollars or more. (5)

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.

This cylinder cut from a clam shell needs to be finished. These are rare finds today.
The largest button-making company to move to Dubuque was that of Harvey Chalmers and Son that established its own blank-cutting plant in the city in 1901. Dubuque officials promised the company, named the Iroquois Pearl Button Company, the plant site for five years and installed the company's power plant for a total cost estimated to be $2,500. (9) The company's location near the levee included three large buildings and two hundred button machines. (10)
Women working in a button-making factory. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
With equipment sufficient to need a workforce of four hundred, the Iroquois Company encouraged employment by offering the unique opportunity for workers to earn money from the first day of employment, although at a reduced rate, while they were being trained. Similar factories paid no wages for the first two weeks. Women's jobs in button manufacturing were usually limited to the less skilled and lower paying positions. Cutters made an average of $8 to $10 a week. Facers, drillers and packers—all positions filled by women—were paid between $4 and $6 a week. (11)
Barges loaded with clam shells headed for the factory. Photo courtesy: Putnam Museum, Davenport, Iowa
The slow pace of recruitment led the local press to remind workers that the job offered year-round employment. By 1902 the plant needed to be expanded at a cost of $30,000. (12) Cellars beneath the factory were said to store $45,000 worth of shells for winter processing.

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.

[[Image:buttoncard.jpg|left|thumb|250px|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)

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Source:

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

9. Kruse

10. Ibid., p. 253

11. "The Pearl Button Story."

12. Kruse, Len. p. 253

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., p. 255