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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

  • Missing

    Mar 10, 2011, 10.03 PMby ora

    This is how we use mother of pearl buttons where i come from. http://www.google.ca/images?client=safari&rls=en&q=haida+button+blankets&oe=UTF-8&redir_esc=&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=univ&sa=X&ei=P0p5TbmcA4bYrAHX7eDCBQ&ved=0CCoQsAQ&biw=1024&bih=632

    so beautiful.

    2 Replies
    • Dscn0826_large

      Mar 11, 2011, 11.10 AMby ruthw

      Wow! Why don’t you write about those? That would makae another very interesting article.

    • Dscn0826_large

      Mar 11, 2011, 11.11 AMby ruthw

      Wow! Why don’t you write about those? That would makae another very interesting article.

  • Gold_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 07.26 PMby hstorm799

    I have had a piece of Mother of Pearl coin jewelry for years and it has been my favorite dress-up-dress-down piece, so when I started making jewelry for sale in my Etsy store, I chose to start with various colors of dyed mother of pearl. While they are more delicate than many other materials, I just love the tinkling sound they make when they clink together. Makes me want to go to an island somewhere and chill on ze beach.

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    Mar 10, 2011, 04.33 PMby wendymichelle1015

    I’ve got about a million of these buttons inherited from my great aunt Ruth, I use them on practically everything, they’re so versatile.

  • Snowdrops_005_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 03.49 PMby sewknitful

    Thanks for the fascinating post. I had no idea. I have my grandmother’s button collection, my mother’s collection and my own. These fill 2 tall jars which I love to dump out and sort through when I’m looking for just the right button(s). There are a few mother-of-pearl buttons in there but no duplicates. I appreciate the opportunity to win this collection. They would be well loved!

  • Mzl_ljixuoxi_320x480-75_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 02.51 PMby FabricUiPhoneApp

    Great story, Amy. I think there’s a great Arcadia Publishing book on the Muscatine button industry. Great pictures and very interesting story.

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    Mar 10, 2011, 02.15 PMby sewenggirl88

    My grandma grew up during the great depression and never lost her habit of saving everything and anything that could possibly be used later. That included buttons off old worn out shirts. So when she passed away a few years ago, I was given all of her sewing stuff and stash and found hundreds of mother of pearl buttons!

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    Mar 10, 2011, 12.07 PMby coffeeaddict

    I was fortunate to grow up in a house whereI’ve been taught from an early age the importance of having a good seamstress. Our family seamstress was a very ‘old world’ lady and had sewn to three generations of women in my family. A piece of information remarkable in itself. Growing up I learned a lot about fabric and patterns. One day, I was still a freshman at the university I comissioned her to sew a white shirt. Oh la la! I could write an essay on the importance of such a cult piece of wardrobe as the plain white shirt. When my seamstress saw the buttons I had selected: plain, transparent plastic buttons, she gave me such a frown! She told me that a ‘true’ shirt will always, ALWAYS have mother of pearl buttons. That is just one of the many things I learned from her and I feel incredibly priviledged to have known here. She was a remarkable lady.

  • Alterknits-dress-form_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 09.36 AMby littlemisssew

    My momma used to collect buttons when she was young…and then grandma told me she has been doing the same thing. When we sifted through the jars and jars of buttons, I found myself with tons of ideas for different kinds of buttons. So,sifting through we also found mother of pearl buttons.My grandma took them herself and told me that those are something to be taken care of. So she stored them away and put them in a place safe to keep for the future for some special occasion sewing project when I grow up. Suffice to say,I never saw those buttons again :p My grandmother is an old fashioned gal in her heart and she feels very young , so she likes to show herself around,put a lot of make up and perfume and do her hair. Put on a fabulous old fashioned frock and walk around like a diva. So guess what she did? She took the buttons for herself,for an old fashioned aqua marine blue silk blouse.Attached them on,and frolicked around struttin’ her stuff. What were ment to be my buttons,got snatched

    It would be very nice if I could get those buttons now…I too deserve special lady like buttons :)

  • 9042c0bf5223511d5cc13e721fdeef21914bb56c_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 06.56 AMby lauriana

    Whenever I sew anything which will go with the colours of mother-of-pearl, I try to find buttons for it in the button jars my grandmothers gave me. There are a few blouses I wear with buttons way older than me. For one of them, I use cufflinks ‘refashioned’ by my great-aunt many years ago. She cleaned off the damaged faces of a pair of metal shank cuff links, and attached mother-of-pearl buttons of the right size there instead.

  • Me_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 05.29 AMby jessdunstan

    I love mother of pearl buttons. I’ve used them on my plain cream duvet covers because they add a lovely texture and new dimension to the simpleness of the duvet. I also love using them on shirts and I’m planning on making a coat for the upcoming winter and using MOP buttons on that.

  • Missing

    Mar 10, 2011, 04.49 AMby knitist

    There is nothing that can substitute for MOP buttons, which must be why I recycle them from old clothes rather than look for new buttons. They make gorgeous embellishments for purses and beautiful jewelry too. I’ve never been fortunate enough to find a card of them! I’ve gotten odd lots of buttons from garage and estate sales, used clothing stores, and grandma’s button jar. I love to repurpose them.

  • Sitting_down_-_gloomy_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 04.26 AMby sarsaparilla

    Interesting history behind mother of peal buttons! I really love those buttons, especially on blouses. My great-grandmother gave me her button box, and it was filled with mismatching mother of pearl buttons. They always remind me of her :)

  • Madamewongthumbnail_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 04.17 AMby MyRomanApartment

    I’ve been rabidly collecting mother of pearl buttons for a Cockney Pearlie-style jacket. I think I’ll have enough in another year….

    Thank you for the history lesson. I had no America dominated the mother of pearl button market. Fascinating!

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    Mar 10, 2011, 03.45 AMby wzrdreams

    I love mother of pearl buttons. They are by far my favorite and I use them often on my shirts. They come in such a lovely variety that never have trouble finding the right shade or size. I usually buy them by the piece in the garment district though. I’ve never had any on a card though! These would be lovely to treasure as a display although I would be VERY tempted to cut them off the cards and use them! If I win, I make no promises to keep them intact. Just sayin. ;)

  • Teacup_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 02.56 AMby elsiesea

    Nothing beats mother of pearl buttons. The texture – especially when the back is left natural – is just unlike any other medium. I keep my eyes open for pearl buttons on old clothes – I’m a big upcycler – and often reuse them more noticeably on new clothes. Lovely to see the pretty cards they come on, too!

  • Missing

    Mar 10, 2011, 02.50 AMby bezmommy1

    I have many vintage buttons, including mother of pearl, from my great aunt and from my husband’s grandmother and great-grandmother. I store them in vintage canning jars and use some for special projects. I made a pillow for my sister with some of the vintage buttons for accents. Thanks for the interesting history on these pretty buttons :)

  • Websam_0860_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 01.50 AMby farahajh

    such a neat history! thank you for the post! I remember as a child my mother’s favorite jewelery was mother of pearl, and she let me play with those pieces all the time. I always thought that mother of pearl was made from abalone shells, but apparently, clam shells were used too!

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    Mar 10, 2011, 01.11 AMby alexus1325

    I occasionally find bags of vintage buttons and notions at second-hand stores, and sometimes there are real gems hiding in those baggies! That’s how I got one of my absolute favourite buttons. It’s a carved mother of pearl flower button, a little over an inch wide. I have no idea what I’ll ever use it for (oh, how I wish there were six or more!), but it’s one of the nicest in my collection :D

  • Missing

    Mar 10, 2011, 12.50 AMby mtandg

    My mother of pearl button story is about the tin that was passed from Grandmother to Mother that I would shake, open, count, sort and just stick my hands in to feel all the buttons but most especially the cool mother of pearl ones!

  • Missing

    Mar 10, 2011, 12.16 AMby tnjen

    I just wanted to say thank you for a wonderful post. The history behind the buttons as well as how they were made is fascinating.

  • Missing

    Mar 9, 2011, 11.57 PMby camelama

    I’ve always associated mother of pearl buttons with my mother’s fancy church gloves, which she wore to Easter and CHristmas services. They bring back memories of smells, material, the pews, all sorts of things. I love finding mother of pearl buttons with different designs engraved in them!

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    Mar 9, 2011, 11.50 PMby nehmah

    I have been collecting MOP items since 1973. I walked by a yard sale, saw a cookie (biscuit, to you folks) box with buttons of MOP and TWO buckles. It cost me t $2.00(US) It’s been going on since. I now count by pounds; I’m up to 10+ lbs. (and one more buckle) Nehmah BTW, Amy, Should you read this, I do not need any more.

  • Dscn0826_large

    Mar 9, 2011, 10.39 PMby ruthw

    Buttons first made their appearance in the Bronze Age. Buttonholes were brought to Europe by the Crusaders who copied them from the Turks and the Persians

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    Mar 9, 2011, 10.34 PMby katharinekp

    I have two mother of pearl belt buckles that my grandmother gave to me just before she died. They are so beautiful and percious to me, I just can’t decided what to make with them!

  • Missing

    Mar 9, 2011, 10.31 PMby ektwelve

    I just received my first sewing machine for christmas so I’ve just begun my new sewing hobby. I have jumped in head first!!! Part of my new love is an affinity for buttons and how they jazz a piece up. I particularly love the elegance of Mother of Pearl buttons..soo gorgeous!!

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    Mar 9, 2011, 09.20 PMby kallers

    I love mother of pearl. A couple of years ago, my mom found 2 ziplock baggies full of MOP buttons for 50 cents at a yardsale. Sadly, I’ve actually managed to work my way through them, and made many garments just to highlight the buttons (like a pair of Nichola trousers!).

  • Missing

    Mar 9, 2011, 09.19 PMby ravenjasmine81

    My grandmother died when I was very young, and left me a huge can filled with buttons. For a long time, I enjoyed sorting through them and playing with them, but have only recently begun using them in my sewing projects. My daughter just turned two, and for her birthday I made her a dress (Oliver + S puppet show pattern) with a row of mother of pearl buttons going down the back. I chose this specific set of buttons from my grandmother’s collection because they have tiny suns engraved in the face of each button…when I was little, my grandmother would sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ to me, and this was the memory that these specific buttons brought back to me. I have given them to my little girl as a way to share that memory (and her great-grandmother) with her!

    1 Reply
    • Missing

      Mar 10, 2011, 07.24 AMby limer

      This made me tear up. Especially your grandmother singing that touching song to you when you were little [that song has always made me feel happy and sad at the same time]. It’s wonderful you’re now sharing the buttons and memory with your daughter. I imagined it felt hard to start using your grandma’s buttons.

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    Mar 9, 2011, 09.12 PMby ladyshape

    I love mother of pearl, although it is quite difficult to find good quality old vintage buttons here in Scotland. It’s best to rummage through remote charity shops and church sales. They look beautiful on white or grey lace blouses. Bone is another favourite.

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    Mar 9, 2011, 09.09 PMby runningwithscissors1

    I have to say, I don’t really have any mother of pearl stories to share. I do think they are much prettier than the multitudes of plastic buttons available now!

    • This is a question
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