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Mississippi River Contributed
To Pearl Button Industry

A few button making tools.
A few button cutting tools, as displayed at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Le Clair

At one time, expensive shirts, jackets and coats required mother-of-pearl buttons to be considered fashionable. This is no longer the case, as other materials, including synthetics, became available and attractive.

Providing mother-of-pearl buttons was once a thriving business along the Mississippi River.

Fresh-water mussel shells from which blanks have been cut.

The production of pearl buttons made from clams harvested from the river flourished from about 1890 and until well into the 1900s. Muscatine, Iowa, became known as the Pearl Button Capital of the world, but several other towns along the river also had several factories producing buttons.

Collecting the clams was sometimes a family operation. A family, or group of families, would set up a camp on the riverbank. The men would work the shell beds, while the women and children steamed the shells, opened, cleaned and separated them.

Button blanks.
Button blanks.

The procedure of harvesting the clams, (actually fresh-water mussels,) from the river was called, logically enough, clamming. One method involved using a scissors-like clam rake, which a person could use from a boat. Another, also used from a boat, was a crowfoot bar, which operated on the fact that a mussel would clamp down on anything that entered its opening.

Finished pearl buttons.
Finished pearl buttons.

Once harvested, the clams were taken to a factory where they were cleaned. Circular blanks were then cut from the iridescent inner side of the shell. These, in turn, were sanded and polished to produce a flat pearl surface. The final step would be to drill the button holes. There was also a machine to engrave a design on especially fancy buttons.

Some of the factories employed as many as 800 people. Others were very small; these usually sent their blanks to one of the larger factories, such as Muscatine, to be drilled.

A small cottage industry also developed - that of sewing the buttons on to cards.
Pearl button production began to decline in the 1920s. A primary reason was the same as that found with so many other processes that depend on nature - overharvesting of the Mississippi mussels. The supply began to run out, and at the same time, other materials became more readily available for buttons, at a much lower cost.

For a few years, fresh water and ocean shells continued to be shipped to Muscatine for cutting, but the factory closed for good in 1967. Any pearl buttons made today are coming from Asian countries.

The photos in this article are from a display at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Le Claire, Iowa.

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Country Kitchens Utilized ‘Pie Safe’

Pie safes were in general use in country kitchens during the 19th century. This piece of kitchen furniture, preceding refrigerators, was also called a pie cupboard, meat safe, tin safe or kitchen safe.
It was basically a wooden cupboard with a front door. Ventilation was provided by screening, pierced tin panels, wooden grillwork or fabric, usually as part of the door, although occasionally on the side panels.
Baked goods, meat, and other perishables could be kept a little cooler in these cupboards and were hopefully also protected from rodents and insects.

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