There are so many things
we take for granted nowadays. Buttons, for example.
Once upon a time, buttons were for the very wealthy. In fact, the
reason ladies clothes button on the right over left and gentleman's
clothes button left over right.is that ladies had maids who dressed them.
So, the ladies clothing was constructed so the maid would use her right
Once in this country - from the 1920s to the 1950s - there was a
successful cottage industry making shell buttons. It was mostly along the
Tennessee River and surrounding towns.
"Musselers" harvested the fresh water mussels from the mud bottom of
the river. The mussels were hauled back to camps where the men set up
huge iron pots outside. They would boil the mussels over that open fire.
The mussels would open and the mussel flesh was extracted and the clean
shells were set aside to be sold to buyers.
The first buyers would sell the shells to men whose jobs were to cut
the shells into discs of various sizes. The little discs were called
They did have machines to cut the blanks. The machines were small
drill presses that were hand held and activated by a foot.
The drill press operator had to maintain his own drill - keeping it
very sharp. The rig was a shaft that turned inside of a flexible cable.
Each operator would cut his shell into a variety of sizes in diameter to
meet the demands of the industry.at the same time, trying to cut as many
blanks as possible from each shell.
The process was that the operator held the shell in one hand and cut
the blanks with the drill that was held in the other hand. When the blank
was cut, the unused part of the shell was picked up and the process
started over again.
This sounds like - and surely was - repetitive and boring work.
All of the drilling had to be done under a stream of water which kept
the drill cool and the shell clean. When the blanks were cut, they were
stored in containers of water until they were shipped elsewhere.
The operators didn't worry about the thickness of the blanks as the
finished buttons were cut and polished and drilled with needed holes
elsewhere - usually in Muscatine, Iowa.
Muscatine, Iowa was on the Mississippi River and was known as The Pearl
Button Capital of the World. In 1905, information says that over a
million and a half pearl buttons were cut there.
In 1887, a German immigrant, John Fred Boepple, came to Muscatine and
brought with him his talent for making buttons. He discovered that the
fresh water mussels made strong buttons that resembled the more costly,
but very fashionable, marine buttons that had before that been cut from an
assortment of animal horns.
Amazingly, musslers still hunt for mussels on the Tennessee River.
Some of them today use SCUBA gear and dive for the shells instead of using
the old fashioned way - with boats and bails.
Today, most of the mussel shells go to Japan where they are implanted
with a substance that eventually becomes a pearl!
In Japan, some of the shells are still used to make the costly pearl
Next time you button your shirt.think about how much trouble it used to
be to make the humble button!