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A Day's Work

A popular local saying claimed, No Muscatine resident can enter Heaven without evidence of previous servitude in the button industry. Something as small and ordinary as a button employed nearly half of the area workforce at the industrys peak.

The sixty hour week of six ten-hour days was standard in the button industry for much of the pearl era. Most cutting shops and button factories operated during the daytime, with only a few major operations running a night shift.

Most workers men and women earned piecework wages. Men had more work options available to them and could manage factories, serve as foremen, take sales positions, work in the engine room, and dye and polish buttons. The most common job for men was operating a shell cutting machine.

Women often made up the largest percentage of workers in the large finishing plants. Button factories offered young women job opportunities outside of being a household servant, laundress, or department store clerk, for example. Women worked on grinding machines, ran Double Automatics, sorted buttons, sewed buttons on cards, packaged buttons, and served in secretarial roles. Women with young children often opted to card buttons from home rather than punching in at the factory.

In all positions, except for shell sorters (who could be younger males), men made at least twice the wages of women. Managers earned nearly $35 a week in 1901 1902. Clerk was the highest paid position held by women who earned $12 each week in 1901 - 1902. Foremen earned between $12 and $19 while forewomen earned $8. Male bookkeepers, electricians, and shell cutters were within the same earnings ranges as foremen. Female button sorters and carders made up to $6 each week. Women operating Double Automatics could earn an additional $2 weekly. While children worked in the button industry, their earnings were not documented. The entire family, in some cases, was called upon to contribute financially to the household, and the labor-intensive button industry was willing to match just about anyone with an appropriate task.

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