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A Little Imagination, a Little Mussel
The rise and fall of the pearl button occurred over a period of seventy-five years. At its height the pearl button was a symbol of wealth, driving demand worldwide and fueling the cutting-edge automated industry that employed half the local workforce. Decades later the American-made pearl button buckled under the pressure of foreign competition, changing fashion, limited availability of shell, and the development and refinement of plastic buttons.
With minimal start-up cost, the button industry’s demand for shells, and the potential to find valuable pearls, clamming became the gold rush of our nation’s rivers. As mussel beds became depleted, clammers moved to rivers throughout the Midwest.
Small shell cutting shops popped up throughout Muscatine and other communities, just as industrialization swept across America propelling the country forward. Neighborhoods hummed with the sound of cutting machines. Piles of cut shell accumulated in alleyways. Cutting shops, often called button factories, ranged in size from one-man outfits to more sophisticated operations employing several dozen men.
The average cutter could use up to 100 pounds of shell a day, resulting in about twenty-five gross, or 3,600 blanks.
Working conditions in shell cutting shops were unpleasant at best. The water needed during cutting drenched workers with building temperatures fluctuating. All workers experienced the discomfort of standing in the same position all day, but many also sustained injuries. While shell dust irritated the throat and lungs, flying shell particles caused eye injuries.
Within ten years of the button industry’s launch in Muscatine, the first signs of labor issues erupted throughout or nation. Male shell cutters faced off against cutting shop owners beginning in July 1899. Disagreements centered around wages and costs associated with tools and saws for shell cutting.
By April 1911, the Muscatine police had hired Pinkertons from Chicago and St. Louis to help maintain order.
At the end of May, the parties signed an agreement that all former employees would be re-instated with no discrimination against those belonging to the union. The bitterness of the 1911 strike stayed with Muscatine residents for years to come. As the strike in Muscatine wound down, labor unrest continued throughout the United States.
End of the Pearl Era
During World War II technological advancements brought better plastic buttons. Touted for their pearl-like qualities, plastic buttons attempted to provide the look of pearl at a fraction of the cost.
The switch from pearl to plastic did not occur over night. In the 1950s and 1960s many Muscatine factories made freshwater pearl, ocean pearl, and plastic buttons simultaneously.