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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

  • Vintage_lady_resize_large

    Mar 9, 2011, 08.37 PMby vintagegal

    My mother is English, so I grew up fascinated with the tradition of the Pearly Kings and Queens. I have always wanted to make a “Pearly” outifit for myself (yes, I know that sounds a bit silly, but what fun it would be!). In the meantime, I plan to make blue silk ribbon bows, with MOP buttons sewn on, to give away at a bridal show I will be at in May. I thought it would be a little something nice for the prospective brides to tuck in to their bouquets, or pin on a garter-a little bit of something old, and something blue, for good luck.

  • Missing

    Mar 9, 2011, 08.19 PMby brigitdermott

    I mostly use mother of pearl buttons for my knitting projects. They look good with any yarn, because of the depth of color. I recently used some square vintage buttons with a sort of beveled edge to finish a Mediterranean blue linen cardigan. I get as many compliments on the buttons as I do on the cardigan.

  • Missing

    Mar 9, 2011, 08.16 PMby ray162738

    I love mother of pearl buttons! They’re so versatile. They can fancy something up, like a dress, and make it more classy looking or they can be on something like a coat or hat and have the homey, cozy look. And they’re so beautiful! My grandma is a tailor and has many of them laying around her sewing room, so I’ve been familiar with them all my life.

  • 014_large

    Mar 9, 2011, 08.15 PMby bhghatesyou

    My mother actually had a pendant that had belnoged to my grandmother that was a gold piece with a mother of pearl center. i remember as a child looking at that mother of pearl and wondering how all those colors we inside. i still have a affinity for mother of pearl. it just looks so classy and i love the texture that things made with mother of pearl have. it looks alive.

  • Me2008_large

    Mar 9, 2011, 08.01 PMby jadedwish

    I am not a huge fan of wearing Jewelry, how I used to own a college ring that had a mother of pearl. I thought it was the most beautiful ring ever and I actually still do. Sadly, it was misplaced while at work and near returned.

    Of all the stones/gems, Mother of Pearl is by far my favorite.

  • B87575aab81043912d3d90b05f02b31f8bebc92e_large

    Mar 9, 2011, 07.14 PMby prizm

    What a great an unexpected giveaway! The only time I’ve used MoP buttons was about 10 yrs ago when I dug them out of my mom’s button stash, I used them to make a bracelet similar to the 3rd picture at the top (from left to right). I think they can really dress up any garment. Thanks for the chance to win.

  • Missing

    Mar 9, 2011, 07.05 PMby varenoea

    No buttonholes until the 12th century?

    Wow. Thinking of the LOTR movies, I remember seeing buttons on the Hobbits (who are vaguely 17th-century), but not on the Humans/Elves (who are stuck in the early Middle ages).

    Nifty, Ms Jackson. Nifty.

  • Salvador_dali_gallery_the_rose_large

    Mar 9, 2011, 06.38 PMby shkoober

    I’ve been fascinated with MOP since I was little and received a bracelet from my uncle returning from Mexico. I remember thinking it was so exotic. Today I have a nice collection of mother pearl jewelry but I really don’t like where my plastic button to mother of pearl button ratio stands today. I always look out for natural material buttons, they really add an organic element to clothing. Great post!

  • Spain_2007_065_large

    Mar 9, 2011, 06.35 PMby nellyvdb

    Mother of pearl buttons and jewellery show up in my life consistently, although I have a thing for losing earrings, and I have lost plenty, therefeore only being left with the buttons :). Where I come from, mother of pearl also has healing properties, as it makes for an excellent treatment for small scars and facial spots, and I know it works cause I have tried it myself (I just thought I would share that bit with you, so when you wear any mother of pearl accessories, you know you wear something beautiful and useful at the same time).

    • This is a question
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