Muscatine reigned as “Pearl Button Capital of the World.” Although the 1911 strike disrupted the button business and everyday life in Muscatine, the town continued to produce pearl buttons. The industry itself peaked in 1916 and continued through the 1960s.
James McKee and his brother-in-law William Bliven went into the button business together in 1895 when they established the Peerless Button Company. The company changed its name to McKee and Bliven Button Company in 1897 and established the factory at 1000 Hershey Avenue in 1907. Since 1925 it has operated as the McKee Button Company.
The Automatic Button Company played a critical part in button industry’s rapid expansion in Muscatine. The Barry family operated their business here before selling it in 1903 to Henry Umlandt who turned it into the Automatic. Umlandt and his former partner John Weber were the button manufacturers who originally inspired the Barrys to invent button making machines. The Automatic Button Company sold their carded buttons under the brand names of ABC and Blue Bonnet. By 1911 the factory employed 500 workers and manufactured 7,000 gross of buttons each day. The Automatic operated until 1967.
Hawkeye was one of the largest button makers in the United States with satellite cutting shops operating in several communities in and out of Iowa. Fred Vetter, William Bishop, Charles Hagermann, and George Jackson launched the company in 1903. The company had the capacity to employ nearly 1,000 workers in the late 1910s. Hawkeye marketed buttons under the brand names Mermaid and the Hawkeye Line and maintained offices and stock rooms in New York City, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.
The Webers turned the button business into a true family enterprise. John Weber, Sr. was born in 1866 in Vienna, Austria and started the Weber Button Company in Muscatine in 1904. His sons – John Jr., Charles, Walter, Edward, William, Frank, Leonard, and Louis – began working in the family business at the age of 12. By 1914 the company had outgrown its original location on Leroy Street and moved to East Sixth Street. Although the company converted to plastic in the 1950s, John Weber’s descendents continue to manufacture buttons at this location.
The U.S. Button Company began in 1913 after Muscatine’s labor dispute. Edward Hagerman, Archie Adams, Charlie Adams, and Elmer Steinmetz were partners in the business. The factory had served another well-known manufacturer – the Boepple Button Company which later changed its name to the Pioneer Button Company. The U.S. Button Company operated at this location until 1941.
W.F. Bishop, J.C. Bishop, and F.W. Hermann launched the Iowa Pearl in 1916. The factory was located at 314 West Mississippi Drive (formerly Front Street). Orlando A. Hammer served as the company’s vice-president before beginning the Muscatine Pearl Works. The Iowa Pearl began small with only ten Barry Double Automatics. As it grew, as many as thirty-eight Double Automatics operated to meet demand. Iowa Pearl carded seventy percent of its buttons and sold under the Bluebird trademark.
Orlando A. Hammer owned the Muscatine Pearl Works which opened in 1938. Hammer’s son-in-law, Dick Hines, later became company president. The factory was located at the corner of Second Street and Pine Street. The Muscatine Pearl Works marketed carded buttons under the brand name of Luckyday. After a fire destroyed its building on Second Street, the Muscatine Pearl Works rebuilt at a location south of Muscatine.
Although it was not located in Muscatine, the American Pearl Button Company of Washington, Iowa did have connections to the Pearl Button Capital of the World. Frank Stewart and Fred Geisler launched the company in 1908. E. B. Hammer became a third partner in 1910. Stewart had previously owned a factory that manufactured boxes. By 1910, E. B. Hammer was brought in as a third partner. At the company’s peak in 1948, it employed 240 workers, making it one of the largest employers in Washington. The American Pearl Button Company sold under the brand name "Lady Washington" until it closed in 1965.
These factories were among the few belonging to an alliance of Iowa button manufacturers. The group consisted of seven Muscatine companies – Automatic Button Company, Hawkeye, Iowa Pearl, McKee, Muscatine Pearl Works, U.S. Button, and Weber & Sons – and one company from Washington, Iowa – American Pearl Button Company. Button manufactures touted pearl as more durable, more lustrous, beautiful, and unaffected by steam, heat, and water.