A Little Imagination, a Little Mussel
John Frederick Boepple, an immigrant button maker, launched Muscatines pearl button industry in 1891. Tariff changes had caused his button business in Germany to fail. Remembering the excellent shell shipped from America, Boepple began his search for mussel shells in Illinois. Popular legend claims that Boepple finally found shell when he cut his foot while bathing in the Sangamon River.
The rise and fall of the pearl button occurred over a period of seventy-five years. At its height the cutting-edge automated industry 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.
Boepple discovered that some shells, like those in the Sangamon River, were too fragile to withstand cutting. His search continued and finally ended in Muscatine where tough, thick mussel shell was abundant in the Mississippi River. Boepple later recalled the experience, At last I found what I had been looking for; yet there still was a problem before me. I was without capital in a strange land and unfamiliar with the language. Early button machines were foot-powered and performed multiple tasks from cutting the shell and carving the design to drilling the holes. Boepple adapted ocean pearl machines for freshwater mussel shell. By the time Boepple established his first shop, the McKinley tariff of 1890 had made imported ocean shell expensive. Conditions were ideal for what many in Muscatine originally considered the foolish dreams of a strange man speaking broken English. After securing a financial partner, William Molis of Muscatine, Boepple opened the worlds first fresh-water pearl button plant in 1891. A few years later, Boepple expanded into a two story building, designed especially for manufacturing pearl buttons.
The industry appeared more viable as Boepples new factory transitioned from foot-powered lathes to machines connected to a steam engine by line shafts. With a promising future for the freshwater pearl button industry, entrepreneurs took interest in button cutting and mussel fishing. Only six years after the industrys launch, dozens of button cutting shops were operating in Muscatine.
Two key factors had turned Muscatine into the Pearl Button Capital of the World Boepples launch of the industry and the machines invented by the Barry family of Muscatine. Their invention, the Barry Automatic, was a large machine that drilled button holes. Another machine carved the design on the face of the button. By 1904 these functions were combined into one machine known as the Double Automatic. The Automatics made a standardized button and allowed for increased production and were as revolutionary as the McCormick reaper and Whitney cotton gin. The work of seven cutting machines supplied one Double Automatic, capable of producing over 150 gross or 21,600 buttons per day. Eventually the Barrys became the main supplier of button making machinery not only in Muscatine but across the United States.