Pearl_button_1_large

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.

Photobucket

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.

Photobucket
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.

Photobucket

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.

Photobucket

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

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 10.36 PMby msdoss

    Last summer I found a beautiful bracelet made from mother-of-pearl buttons at a craft fair along the Mississippi River in St. Charles, MO. Whenever I wear it I hear memories from others that share a fondness for things before plastic. Thanks for the history lesson, now I have something else to share

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 10.34 PMby thecrazycrafter

    I have a tin of buttons from my mom and grandma but I don’t have any on cards. I would love to win some and put them in a shadow box for my sewing room. I will be checking my button tin for mother of pearl buttons though! Thanks for the great information.

  • Avatar_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 10.11 PMby lilywarrior

    Thanks for the history! I was unaware of this history even though the ancient Mother-of-Pearls in my Mom’s button box were my favorites. It is funny in an odd sort of way that I was hoping to inherit that button tin. I would spend hours rummaging through it even after I had children of my own. It had always been there. I expected it would always be there. My Mom inherited it from her mother and I expected to inherit from my mother. What a connection it made.

    There was a hank of embroidery thread that my mother said came from her childhood. There were buttons taken from the clothes her mother had made for everyone in the family. Then there were buttons from the clothing that she made for herself, my sister and me. I had my own button box from my years of sewing and I looked forward to the day that they would be added to that treasured tin.

    My mother died 4 years ago. There is no tin. I make a new tin now but it is not the tin that had the Mother-of-Pearl buttons from the first sweater my mother ever knitted and that she knitted from me. It doesn’t have the huge blue buttons from the Mother and Daughters Easter Dresses that she made for me and my sister.

    I’d better get to sewing!

  • Accountphoto_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 09.32 PMby picknstitch

    I love these little button gems. I have my mother’s button box, and it contains some mother of pearl, since most of her sewing was done in the late 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. I consider the little box one of my treasures.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 09.27 PMby seiram

    I love these buttons !

  • Kevin_s_003_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 09.25 PMby suebee2

    I love Mother of Pearl Buttons. I use them on purses I make for myself. All of mine came from family members that were removed from their clothes. I think some maybe quite old. I don’t have any cards. I live near Lowell Massachusetts where the Industrial Revolution took place. Come see the Museum sometime.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 09.04 PMby theweelander

    I love the way mother of pearl buttons immediately dress something up. Plastic just can’t do that!

  • Garden_0366_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 09.03 PMby barbarag

    In the 17th century mother of pearl buttons were manufactured in France near Paris. There is a wonderful museum to visit where you can see the difficult working conditions that produced these wonderful buttons.

    Search for Musee de la nacre in a town called Meru.

  • 45811c6523cf387bf5dc4d6ad3a61949336038df_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 09.01 PMby judeb

    What a wonderful history for lovely mother of pearl buttons. I grew up in London and clearly remember the Pearly King and Queen in the east end in thier beautifully decorated outfits of mother of pearl buttons, now in Australia and my button stash is harder to feed with vintage buttons……..

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 08.53 PMby RoseQuartz54

    Oh goodness… I ADORE mother-of-pearl and buttons! I remember when I was in 4th/5th grade I had a ring made out of mother-of-pearl. It was so pretty… I went around showing off to my friends that I had a “real, solid, pearl ring” and that it was probably pretty expensive! (I didn’t know the difference between shell and pearl then!) ;) Sadly, it broke when I was in 6th grade. I still miss it! <3 I hope I win! Happy sewing, Julia B. coenobita54 [at] gmail [dot] com

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 08.36 PMby anitafour

    WOW fascinating! I have a small collection of mother of pearl and would love to ADD to it :)

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 08.31 PMby karenadd

    I have many of my grandmother’s buttons and they include lots of beautiful MOP. One of my favorite treasures is a muslin heart covered with buttons that my youngest daughter made me for Mother’s Day many years ago.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 08.27 PMby ItsRainyInPDX

    I totally loved this post — how interesting to learn about the history of these buttons! I just recently started collecting buttons and love how they were presented.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 08.23 PMby megan182

    My grandma had all sorts of buttons, including mother of pearl. I wonder what happened to those, I’ll have to ask my mom.

  • Image_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 08.12 PMby calatrava92

    Love, love, love!

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 08.09 PMby sheriori

    Thank you so much for the button story! My cousin, who lives on the other side of Iowa, has recently told me the same. She inherited a pick-up load of buttons that her dad got from an auction years ago. Amazing how beautiful they are. I loved seeing the pictures of Muscatine and also the old button cards. Anxious to start my very own button collection!

  • 587b193d1050ae416b76bd7080cac33d06c63cd1_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.58 PMby stephchows

    I have tins filled with buttons that were my Nan’s some on cards just like those! I love looking through them all and thinking up new ways to use them :)

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.47 PMby voconnal

    When I first started making our traditional textile regalia, formally called “button blankets”, I had to use plastic buttons because I couldn’t afford to buy mother-of-pearl buttons at the time. The finished robes looked beautiful but lacked “something”. My husband agreed and when he decided to make a return trip to his hometown in January 1986 he explained that he would check out the garment district. I had no idea what he meant but considering that his “hometown” was New York City, I learned soon enough. While walking the district, he came upon a button store that was advertising that they were closing. He went inside and was served by one of the two elderly brothers that owned the store. He showed this gentleman a photo of my work and was immediately taken to the back where he was asked to climb a ladder and bring down over a half dozen very heavy boxes. When they were opened they were chock full of mother-of-pearl buttons in every imaginable size. He was taken aback and the elderly gentleman told him he liked the look of him so sold all of them to him for $50 American. When he got them home again he had them gift wrapped and gave them to me. I was just struck dumb when I opened them and like a true cry-baby,just cried. What a gift!!! My button blankets have never looked the same.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.41 PMby kdschafer

    I loved looking thru my grandmother’s button jar. The MOP always caught my attention. The shimmer was fascinating. I’m not sure what happened to her button jar after she passed away. I did inherit my mother-in-laws button collection and my daughter thinks the MOP buttons are beautiful. We’ll have to add some to her next purse.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.29 PMby betseylee

    I love sewing and vintage items. So mother-of-pearl buttons are high on my list. Thanks for the info.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.21 PMby magda123

    When I see mother od pearl bottons, I think of my Nanna. She is not with us any more but she tought me all I know about sewing.

  • C74c33cb0fa288d12cf175183f78dfe556a5d163_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.18 PMby patalie

    What a great article, I love reading stories that are intertwined with history. One question, is there a way to tell real mother of pearl buttons from the fake ones? I buy jars of buttons from thrift stores and antique shops on occasion and would love to know how to tell them apart.

  • 4534664460_8ff2d45d6b_o_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.18 PMby laurenshaffer

    Growing up when I would visit my Nana in Boston I was obsessed with an abalone shell she had in her home. I’d always admire the mother of pearl interior of it and think how beautiful it that grayish-pearl color would be as jewelry. After I’d gotten a bit older I had mentioned it to my father one day and he laughed….turns out that at times she would use that shell as an ashtray (thankfully not when I was putting my little fingers all over it). Oh Nana.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.16 PMby magda123

    I love mother of pearl buttons becauce tthey remind me of my Nanna, she tought me all I know about sewing. I will buy vintage just to get the “real” buttons

  • Silhouette_profile_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.12 PMby thefabledneedle

    Fascinating, I never knew mother of pearl buttons came out of the Mississippi!

    I love mother of pearl buttons as well (in fact, I picked some up on some adorable cards this past weekend). When I was little, I associated mother of pearl with mermaids and fairy tales about the sea. I make this association even today and have started collecting vintage silverware with mother of pearl handles (because that is something a mermaid would use!).

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 07.07 PMby sue2010

    Mother of pearl buttons are such a stylish addition to any sewing project. I’ve collected them in France, England, Poland, Canada and the U.S. and I freely share them with my friends, ‘cause like the pushers always say "the first one’s free!"

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 06.59 PMby pioneer588

    When I was a little girl my brother brought home an abalone shell. I was fascinated with the colors and smoothness of it. I liked to get it wet and see how it shone. Since then I have always had a love for Mother-of-Pearl. I never knew they made buttons out of it. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing the history.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 06.53 PMby heymudda

    I like that no two buttons are ever the same, unlike plastic buttons. I’m sewing doll clothes for my grand daughter now and i’m recycling mother of pearl buttons from some of my grandmothers clothing. The fabric may be new but, the buttons have a history this is being passed on to the next generation as we talk about what dress or blouse they came from.

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 06.52 PMby craftinginmycave-1

    OMG! I was just reading about this museum and planning a road trip this spring. I’ve always thought MOP were so pretty…shiny…I must be part raccoon. :)

  • Missing

    Mar 15, 2011, 06.47 PMby beemabros

    Lovely article and great pictures. I’ve been sorting my own collection of buttons I’ve amassed over the years into “meh” buttons and “real” buttons, and I think we all know what I mean when by “real”. I love the look, the comparative weight, and the depth of color(s) one finds in mother of pearl buttons. It’s impossible to mimic that with man-made products.

    • This is a question
  1. Sign in to add a post

Departments

  • Editors' Pick
  • Fashion & Trends
  • Backstage Report
  • Web Seminars
  • DIY to Try
  • Mandie's Picks
  • Denise's Desk
  • Meg's Magazine Mash Up!
  • Featured Member
  • Competitions
  • Guest Columns
  • Comment to Win
  • Monthly Memo
  • BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern
  • ARCHIVE
  • Sewing & Techniques
  • Courses
  • Videos
Burdastyle

http://burdastyle.com//blog/mother-of-pearl-buttons-a-uniquely-american-triumph?page=2