Buttons?

When I became Director of the National Pearl Button Museum last September it was something of a departure (pun intended) from my former job as an airline pilot. When I told my aviation friends about my new job they inevitably replied with a question – a single word, actually. “Buttons?”

The idea that something so ubiquitous should be the focus of a historical museum requires some explanation. Buttons are part of our everyday life. Virtually every person on earth touches a button nearly every day, and yet I doubt we devote even one brain cell to considering this mundane object and its importance.

Why Buttons Matter

Everyone who lives in Muscatine knows it is the Pearl City. We all know that this name has something vaguely to do with buttons. If you have lived here awhile you probably think you know “the button story.” There may be more to our history than you realize.

When I first came to the museum, a single display caught my attention. It says “In 1905 Muscatine produced 1.5 Billion buttons.” Numbers that large can be abstract. After I looked at that sign a half-dozen times I decided to do the math. It turns out that 1.5 billion of anything is a lot. If you stacked 1.5 billion pearl buttons in downtown Muscatine, that pile, when it inevitably fell, would reach Los Angeles.

This industry was a very big deal! Virtually every family in Muscatine was engaged in this grand project. If you grew up here it is almost certain that your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents caught clams, hauled shells, drilled blanks, or worked in the button factories. The history of pearl buttons is the history of Muscatine.

The button industry dominated the economy here for half a century. It brought money into this community from around the world and provided insulation against the ravages of the Great Depression. Perhaps more importantly, it laid an economic foundation upon which our diversified modern economy is built. The economic powerhouses of today, HNI, Kent, Stanley Consultants, Carver Pump, Musco, Bandag, Raymond, Heinz, and others found what they needed to innovate, build, and expand right here in our little river town. The strong supply of capital, skilled labor, infrastructure, and ideas that were a by-product of the pearl button industry made these other businesses possible.

The National Pearl Button Museum Matters

People love history. We all have a natural curiosity about those who came before us. How did they make a living? What were their lives like? At the National Pearl Button Museum we tell this national growth story very well. We are the top-rated “thing to do” within the city of Muscatine on TripAdvisor. We get uniformly Excellent reviews. In 2019 we attracted thousands of visitors to Muscatine from 7 foreign countries and 49 states. (We are working hard on New Hampshire). These guests, who love our history, also find that they love Muscatine. They eat at our fantastic restaurants, shop at our excellent stores, and stay at our great hotels. Our museum is bringing people here. Every day we tell the story of Muscatine – our story. We are proud to be part of Muscatine’s success.

Your membership and your generous donation make all this possible. We could not tell this story without you. And we believe that your donation to the National Pearl Button Museum is an investment in our community, too. We are grateful for your support.

Dustin Joy