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I love mother of pearl buttons. Over the years, as I was searching for samples, I began to learn the fascinating story of their rise to popularity and the uniquely American slant to their success. I thought I would share that with you today.

Examples from my book Button Ware

For centuries, since buttons first made their appearance in ancient Persia as merely decorative additions (remember, buttonholes and the functionality of buttoning an item of clothing did not appear until the 12th century), there has always been a calling for something shiny to adorn our clothes. However, mother of pearl – along with precious metals, bone and animal horns – was extremely rare, expensive to obtain and reserved for royalty.

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It was not until a German-born button maker, John Fredrick Boepple, immigrated to the United States did mother of pearl buttons rise to popularity and became available to the masses. You see, even though automation had come to the button making process in Europe in the mid 1800s, the process of stamping them from shells required specialized and expensive machinery. As well, the shells Boepple used had to be imported and were subject to an extremely high tariff. With his business failing, John Boepple brought his button stamping machinery to the one place he was sure could supply him an endless supply of shells – the United States and the Mississippi River.

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Muscatine History and Industry Center, Button Factory Workers, John Boepple and his button stamping machine

Boepple settled in Muscatine, Iowa at a bend in the river where great amounts of fresh-water clams grew. Thanks to the mighty Mississippi, his mother of pearl button business grew beyond his wildest dreams. By 1900, Boepple expanded his operations to the point that he employed one third of the town of Muscatine, which became known as “Pearl City” and the “Pearl Button Capital of the World,” out-pacing button factories in Europe. The export value of mother of pearl buttons at the turn of the century was well over $3.5 million dollars…quite a sum for the time.

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As I briefly mentioned earlier, one of my many collecting ‘obsessions’ is buttons, including those made of mother of pearl. Many in my collection come from Wisconsin Pearl Buttons in Lacrosse, WI.

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Taking nearly 6600 tons of clams from the mighty Mississippi, the Wisconsin factory churned out millions of pearl buttons during its heyday. After the buttons were made, they were distributed to homes in the city, where women and children sewed them onto a card, receiving a penny for each finished card they produced. I really love the variety and creativity used in the card designs themselves.

Sadly, the mother of pearl button business eventually left Lacrosse and Muscatine due to the construction of up-river locks and dams, the over-harvesting of clams, and the explosive growth of plastic button manufacturing. However, if you keep you eyes open, you can still find beautiful mother of pearl buttons, mounted on cards, ready to add to your own collection.

I want to fuel someone else’s obsession with buttons by giving away the six mother of pearls button cards featured in the picture above. All you have to do is leave us a comment, tell us a mother of pearl story (buttons, jewelry, etc)…and we’ll draw a winner from all of those who comment.

As always, thanks for letting me share a little bit of my love of vintage.

~ Amy

Amy Barickman is the founder and owner of Indygo Junction, The Vintage Workshop and AmyBarckman.com. She is a leader in the sewing, needle arts and retail crafting industry having sold more than two-million sewing patterns and published 80 books sold throughout the world. Her recent endeavor is the book “Amy Barickman’s Vintage Notions: An Inspirational Guide to Needlework, Cooking, Sewing, Fashion and Fun”, is already on its third printing since its release in September of 2010. Other best-selling titles include: “Indygo Junction’s Button Ware” and, most recently, “Hankie Style”.

129 Comments

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    Feb 8, 2012, 12.57 AMby Lucypie

    Thank you! I just acquired a pile of old buttons and this helps. It’s so much more fun to go through these things if you know the history.

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    May 27, 2011, 08.04 AMby Tara Boynton

    Does anybody know where the beautiful graphics on the button cards come from?

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    Apr 13, 2011, 07.54 PMby praemace

    I too collect old buttons, and treasure my vintage pearl ones. I love tiny things, and found tiny baby MOP buttons at a garage sale and bought them all. Of course, they are too cute to use, so I just love having them!! Thanks for the photo of the shell with cutouts – I always wondered how it was done!

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    Mar 27, 2011, 12.52 AMby ehesse

    I never knew they had such a history. The ones I have and cherish are now more valuable to me. Thank you for the story.

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    Mar 24, 2011, 08.53 AMby jebeitz

    I am 64 and still have my mother’s button collection in an old tin container. The most interesting are some that look like they are made from sliced and polished walnut shells. Buttons from my dad’s Ary Air Corps uniform are in there too

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    Mar 22, 2011, 08.54 PMby ldlakip

    Love mother of pearl buttons and own jewelry made out of them from vintage buttons :) I get so many compliments on them too.

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    Mar 22, 2011, 07.26 PMby atrinka

    When are you going to draw the winner? You didn’t say the end of the this contest

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    Mar 21, 2011, 02.28 AMby sewinl0ve

    How cool to see the photo of the shell with buttons punched out! I have this obsession with a necklace I saw once on diplay at Mount Vernon as part of Martha Washington’s jewelry collection. The necklace was made up of mother of pearl backings intricately laced with the tiniest seed pearls you’ve ever seen! It was incredible! Instantly I fell in love and I’ve been scouring the internet for supplies to make my own since, but with little luck. Seed pearls are extremely difficult to come by, especially in the perfect round shape I would need and drilling holes in them is also risky work because they’re so delicate. It’s also difficult to find the right mother of pearl pieces to use as the backings. However, I did come across another interesting piece from an Antiques appraisal. A lady brought in a necklace like the one I mentioned which supposedly belonged to Marie Antoinette. It was gorgeous as well. Here’s a link to the Marie Antoinette necklace: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/200502A18.html Thanks for the story about mother of pearl buttons! I understand your obsession, believe me ;o)

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    Mar 19, 2011, 06.13 PMby photodoll

    I also have gone throu my grandmothers and mothers button jar for the pretty buttons to sew on tops…what a great way to grew up and have a part of history on your blouse or dresses….love them thank you

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    Mar 19, 2011, 03.12 PMby christinasbookshelf

    I inherited my grandmother’s button box. The most interesting buttons are possibly made out of bakelite and look like white hot dogs in black buns. But the button box also had MOP and glass buttons. You can tell a button is MOP because it feels cold to the touch at first (until it warms up), it feels much heavier than a plastic button of the same size, and they clink together with a sound somewhat like glass, but more solid-sounding. I wish that fabric stores in the US still sold the thick, sturdy MOP buttons—now they just have flimsy thin ones.

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    Mar 18, 2011, 03.21 AMby shoezanne

    As a child I loved to play with the mother of pearl buttons in my great-grandmother’s huge button jar, they always seemed like little jewels and I would separate them from all the others… Somehow, even as a little one, I knew they were the “special” ones. :-)

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    Mar 17, 2011, 04.57 PMby dottty

    Mother of pearl buttons take me right back to being small enough to sit on my mothers lap and wonder at the shiney buttons on the cardigan that she had knitted, lovely memories of my most wonderful mother :)x

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    Mar 17, 2011, 12.11 AMby annaelizabeth

    LOVELY!

    These are really sweet. I like the lustre. I wonder how easy they would be get in New Zealand?

    Thank you for sharing your love of them with us.

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    Mar 16, 2011, 05.47 PMby sahroo

    My sister who lives in Ireland wanted to start a small busines selling bohemian style clothes inspired by ethnic designs (we’re originally from Pakistan). Noticing how common mother of pearl buttons had become in the west (especially at ZARA!), she thought to use the same for her own creations. Production was going to be set up entirely in Pakistan since there is an abundance of fabric types and prints (and all very cheap!) available there, she never gave a second thought to not being able to find these tiny accessories there. It was only when we had exhausted all known button-carriers in the city (they all knew what we were talking about but had never seen them being sold anywhere, and would refer to them as “shell” buttons, “mother-of-pearl” being a very foreign term) and were going to go ahead with using something else that she happened to chance upon a tiny shop in the basement of a dinghy old building, and lo and behold, he had the mother of pearls we were looking for (although in one size and colour only). It served our purpose, but I have since been intrigued to look into why such beautiful things are so scarce in a market that is generally very well stocked for all things fabric-and-sewing related.

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    Mar 16, 2011, 05.20 PMby bwang2

    Buttons are such a great accessory on garments! these mother of pearl buttons are so gorgeous and would really finish any piece. I love it! X

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    Mar 16, 2011, 01.36 PMby kathasaurus

    So cool…… had no idea!

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    Mar 16, 2011, 07.16 AMby ladykatie

    I inherited my mother and my great aunts button boxes. There is a very old small tin ( that once held bakers chocolate) filled with some of the tiniest MOP buttons. I still love sifting thru all of the buttons.

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    Mar 16, 2011, 03.35 AMby sumac67

    I also cut MOP buttons off of all recycled clothing items..as my Mom and Gram did too. They are wonderful……..always unique. I also enjoy MOP jewellry…………..always has it’s own special glow.

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    Mar 16, 2011, 02.28 AMby docpattie

    When my Mum was alive she always cut the MOP buttons off the clothes before they went to the rag bag. She would recycle them, by using them in the new clothes she made. It was always a fun challenge to guess what piece of clothing the buttons on your new outfit came from. Of course Mum always knew, she said that each one was unique and easy to identify. Even now I still can’t let a piece of clothing move on to it’s “next life” until I have cut the MOP buttons off, to reuse! :)

    Pattie ;)

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    Mar 16, 2011, 02.10 AMby debw

    After he emigrated from Norway to the US around 1912, my grandfather’s first job was dredging in the Mississippi River for shell fish for the button factory in Lansing Iowa. He had to stand in chest deep water from “open water” to open water, roughly late March to early November, with a giant kind of tongs to collect the shellfish. My dad grew up across the street from the button factory, and I can just barely remember it being open. What hard work! There were button factories up and down the Mississippi River, at least the part from Lake Pepin to Muscatine. What really killed the industry was the pollution from the raw sewage that poured into the River from Minneapolis and St. Paul. The River is now much cleaner that it was 100 years ago when my grandpa worked in it and 70 years ago when my dad swam in it. I treasure my mother of pearl buttons, using and reusing them on my sewing projects. My favorite set is dyed a beautiful soft yellow, and I’ve used them on at least 5 garments through the years. Treasure your buttons, but don’t hoard them, use and enjoy them.

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    Mar 16, 2011, 01.59 AMby dhcatlady

    Thank you for this wonderful article! I had no idea there were ever any companies that made mother of pearl buttons here in the US and from the Mississippi River!! How interesting. I have always preferred MOP in jewelry and as buttons my entire life and have used them on many garments and decorative items. I love the look and gravitate toward getting MOP beads and charms for making jewelry for my online businesses even now regularly. Thanks for the information and for your generous give-away offer. Very nice of you!

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    Mar 16, 2011, 01.36 AMby cuppiecakes83

    What a great story! I love learning the history behind everyday things! I would love to add those buttons to my stash!

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    Mar 16, 2011, 01.33 AMby dlebrun

    I had mother of pearl of buttons on a sweater when I was very small and as I out grew it my mother moved the buttons to another piece and so on. I loved to watch her do this because it meant I was getting to be a ‘big girl’. Alas they were lost in a move somewhere in the past but I have a small card of them I found in a small town sewing shop on a trip and I keep them pinned to a board above my sewing maching and think of Mom.

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    Mar 16, 2011, 01.32 AMby sherray

    Very interesting article! I grew up in Missouri not far from the Mississippi and I can remember finding shells in the river like the one in the photo— holes punched out of them! I asked my dad why they looked like that he told me they would punch buttons out of them and then throw them back in the water. I have always had a fondness for them and save my small stash of mother of pearl for only the most special items I sew. There’s nothing like them to make a garment look special!

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    Mar 16, 2011, 01.08 AMby kgrdnr

    Amazing! I’ve always been in love with mother of pearl buttons and anything really; my earrings are even mother of pearl. I think it’s just beautiful simplicity.

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    Mar 16, 2011, 01.03 AMby gisellazapata

    They are beautiful buttons, everything in mother of pearl is stlylish and ageless

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    Mar 16, 2011, 12.39 AMby gobepu

    I love mother of pearl – there is nothing else like it.

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    Mar 16, 2011, 12.13 AMby lisamarie

    Ever since I can remember, my mother has kept her jewelry inside a large sea shell with the most beautiful mother-of-pearl color swirls inside. To me it was always more beautiful than the jewelry that she kept in there.

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    Mar 15, 2011, 11.16 PMby sistermerrill

    I love mother of pearl, on buttons or otherwise.

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    Mar 15, 2011, 10.40 PMby mommytoava

    The carded examples above are simply stunning! Pearl is such a beautiful, yet mysterious form. When I was a child, I would scavenge the eastern shoreline for shells, spotting them by their iridescent reflection in the water. Each time I found one, I felt as though I had caught a star that had fallen from the sky! Pearl continues to hold that kind of magic for me. And although I would love to put these buttons to practical use on a special blouse or dress, I simply could not displace them from their sweet card. I think they would be just as beautiful pinned inside of a frame, providing inspiration and a reminder of days gone by. Thank you for the insightful review and for sharing these pieces from your collection, Amy!

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