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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

  • Faceforevite_large

    Mar 15, 2011, 06.47 PMby ladyj12733

    My mother and I used to save the buttons from our old cloths (that couldn’t be donated) this resulted in quite a collection. We lost them all in a flood a few summers ago. I actually had to buy buttons for a project. it was very odd. I’d love to restart my collection with some lovely buttons.

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    Mar 15, 2011, 06.42 PMby lotty

    So pretty and feminine. Love Mother of Pearl.

  • Missing

    Mar 13, 2011, 07.39 PMby connie5252

    My favorite buttons – so many colors in one button – so subte.

  • Missing

    Mar 13, 2011, 07.39 PMby connie5252

    My favorite buttons – so many colors in one button – so subte.

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    Mar 13, 2011, 04.49 PMby ddss2000

    I love this informative post. My granny, who enjoyed quality clothing and made much herself, would always prefer the more natural buttons on her clothing, including the mother of pearl. Through her mentoring, I have also always enjoyed natural buttons over the plastic ones, and treasure the vintage clothing that are still adorned with the mother of pearl buttons.

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    Mar 13, 2011, 04.16 PMby lionsforlove

    Great article! I have seen so many of these in my grandmother’s sewing collection. They are just beautiful.

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    Mar 13, 2011, 03.52 PMby lizajane09

    This was fascinating to read! Thanks for posting this. I love mother of pearl buttons. They are my go to buttons when I’m unsure about what to use. They look good on almost any garment..

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    Mar 13, 2011, 03.19 PMby thelibraryfaerie

    I create jewelry made from vintage buttons, and mother of pearl buttons are my favorite. They make any piece of crafty jewelry look instantly more sophisticated, more romantic, and more beautiful! I love finding jars of them at flea markets and antique shops, but going through my grandmothers’ old MOP buttons has been the most fun. My favorite mother of pearl buttons are the ones that are engraved, differently shaped, or more uniquely colored. Loved the article about them!

  • Missing

    Mar 13, 2011, 03.06 PMby sewsusan

    As many of the other posters have said, I love rooting through my old button jars and searching antique stores for classic mother of pearl buttons. The slight variations in color and size give these buttons character that mass produced buttons can’t match. As a child, my daughter loved going to grandma’s so she could ‘organize’ the infamous button tin. Oh the wonderful button pictures she created on the living room floor with those buttons.

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    Mar 13, 2011, 02.02 PMby tonierenee

    I had bought a couple of packages of mother of pearl buttons when I was pregnant with my daughter (16 years ago) I was trying to find the perfect thing to make with them until my (then 5 year old) daughter asked her dad to help her make me a mother’s day gift. I was a baby doll of muslin about ten inches tall, with scraggly black yarn hair, and mother of pearl button eyes. She even has a tiny pocket on her left side of her chest, where a little red paper heart slips out that reads “this belongs to mommy” I still get teary when I think back. Now at 16, she has talked me into buying more of them and using them to make a mosaic on a shirt like sequins… I love that she’s creative, so I don’t mind giving up my buttons to her.

  • Missing

    Mar 12, 2011, 09.14 PMby emnemastil

    How fascinating, and pretty!

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    Mar 12, 2011, 05.28 PMby simplyb

    My grandmother had a brooch that was MOP and I would sit beside her and just rub it if whenever she wore it to church. There’s nothing like the feel of MOP.

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    Mar 11, 2011, 10.20 PMby madscouser

    I love mother of pearl buttons, so pretty and delicate looking. One of my friends makes stunning jewellery with antique mother of pearl buttons, up to 100 years old!

    Judith Brown Jewellery link

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    Mar 11, 2011, 07.29 PMby nyphertiti

    Great article! Very informative. I’m not sure I’ve ever used MOP buttons but I think they would be perfect on a cute little cardigan. The cards are so interesting too. Not sure if I would have the heart to remove the buttons~

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    Mar 11, 2011, 07.17 PMby pdxfabricdeli2

    What an interesting post, I love buttons and my collection is growing. Thanks

  • Devis_vintage_dresses_large

    Mar 11, 2011, 06.53 PMby RetroDivaSSC

    What a pretty post! Recently I was lucky enough to come into possession of a collection of vintage ladies gloves. I noticed right away that one of the best pairs in the bunch is a tailored white pair enhanced by the addition of four tiny mother of pearl buttons at the cuffs. The original owner had exquisite taste. I think mother of pearl is another example of those beautiful everyday luxuries of days gone by.

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    Mar 11, 2011, 06.16 PMby atrinka

    My grandma used to say that if you have a scar you could use a genuine mother of pearl button to lessen its appearance. The recipe was: one genuine (and I repeat genuine, she always said that) mother of pearl button mixed with vinegar or lemon. Let it stand for a few minutes and then put the liquid over the scar. I’ve never tried this home remedy because I love and cherish my "genuine"mother of pearl buttons. Thanks for sharing!

  • Missing

    Mar 11, 2011, 04.04 PMby amyles

    I love MOP buttons. My favorite sweater had MOP buttons. I think the cards they used were almost as beautiful as the buttons.

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    Mar 11, 2011, 03.59 PMby Michele Bouchard

    What a wonderful and informative article! My little tale to tell….I love doing history recreation, and as you can imagine, accuracy is highly sought after in these groups. I created a beautiful rendition of a Persian gown for an event, complete with hat and droopy sleeves. I looked and looked for just the right buttons, and just couldnt find anything that was appropriate. A friend of mine that I had known for years fished around in her button stache and gifted me with 2 cards of classic mother of pearl buttons. I nearly cried, they were so beautiful! We sewed them on, and off to the event I went. I got so many compliments on the beautiful buttons! I still have them on the Persian to this day, and I always get compliments on them :)

  • Haute_1_haut-036-2010_02_26_14_32_42_3158005_large

    Mar 11, 2011, 11.49 AMby samaya29

    I love everything mother-of-pearl (it took me a while to figure out why it was called that), something about the shiny, shimmery texture that makes me so happy. I’m new to sewing but am always looking for an excuse to attach mother-of-pearl buttons…thanks for the lovely article.

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    Mar 11, 2011, 11.11 AMby ruthw

    I think the article is really interesting on the American history of MOP buttons (and the photos are excellent). But a lot of people on the board seems to think that they are no longer made. But they are. Most of the knitwear I buy in Turkey, if it has buttons, it has MOP buttons.

  • Dscn0826_large

    Mar 11, 2011, 11.11 AMby ruthw

    I think the article is really interesting on the American history of MOP buttons (and the photos are excellent). But a lot of people on the board seems to think that they are no longer made. But they are. Most of the knitwear I buy in Turkey, if it has buttons, it has MOP buttons.

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    Mar 11, 2011, 07.39 AMby freakusbzzz

    I went to Tessuti fabrics yesterday to buy some pins and my 4 yr old had a major meltdown cause he wanted a pretty fabric remnant ($30 was a bit much for a meltdown). I disperesed the meltdown by telling him he could choose a button instead, He chose a gorgeous red flower mother of pearl button! $3.50 too. Not cheap but cheaper than $30. Plus I can use it on my next oroject.

  • Missing

    Mar 11, 2011, 04.23 AMby Evelyn Vogt

    I love the feel of mother of pearl buttons. That’s one of the things I love about making my own clothes, I can add little touches that make things special. My Dad sent me my grandmother’s old sewing box and I found a lots of little treasures but only a few mother of pearl buttons.

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    Mar 11, 2011, 03.55 AMby elaineren

    I call mother of pearl buttons “real buttons” . (The plastic ones work but they are not “real”.) I love the way they feel to my tongue and teeth! Haha. I am glad to hear so many people are out there saving and reusing the “real buttons”!

    1 Reply
    • B6e8478911e32abbfa88924d28cbff1d359e089d_large

      Mar 11, 2011, 06.18 PMby atrinka

      Me too. Thanks to my Grandma, she always said genuine MOP buttons!

  • Strawberry_large

    Mar 11, 2011, 03.44 AMby strawberrypancakesbykim

    I don’t know if I actually have seen any genuine mother of pearl buttons ever…but I’d like to win some!

  • Dsc_0075_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 11.00 PMby pulgarsita7

    I have a beautiful Indian style shirt that has mother of pearl buttons on the front. It is one of my favorite shirts and even though it is six years old I still wear it and take good care of it.

    • This is a question
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