There are buttons everywhere.
On display at the Muscatine History and Industry Museum, formerly, the Pearl Button Museum, is a heap of white “pearl” buttons that you can sort by size and quality, just as workers in the button factories once did. Some buttons are utterly plain and functional: round, two- or four-holed, each with an iridescent sheen. But some are fancy, shaped as squares, rectangles, triangles, bow ties, diamonds, hearts, or flowers and dyed various colors. Some are edged with teeth or scallops or bordered with swirls, waves, or leaves. Within the buttons are criss-crosses, raised diamonds, almonds, circles, or hexagons. On some buttons, the holes are arranged so as to suggest two eyes and a smiling mouth.
Hanging from the ceiling are large-scale replicas of “button cards,” the cardboard rectangles onto which the buttons were sewn. One shows a young man, a golfer, wearing a white shirt with four dark buttons sewn down the middle of his shirt and one on either cuff. His necktie blows to his right so one has a full view of the buttons. Hanging next to him is a replica of a button card featuring a stylish, svelte woman in a long, gold dress. Sewn diagonally across the card are four big, white, iridescent buttons. Another replica shows a map of most of the western hemisphere. Covering most of Canada are two big letters: “US.” Printed in a box across those letters is “UNIVERSAL SATISFACTION.” Written across the northern United States is “BUTTON, CO., MUSCATINE, IOWA.” A set of six glossy white buttons is sewn on either side of the map. Beneath the caption “Who’s Got the Button?” at the top of the card are six people in button-up shirts who are searching for their buttons. Beneath the caption “We’ve Got the Button” at the bottom of the card are six happy people who have found their buttons.
Also on exhibit are mussel shells from which flat, round disks or button “blanks” were cut in 1919. On some shells, the holes where the blanks were punched are close together and little shell remains. But on others, the waste is apparent: more shell than holes. From the early 1900s into the 1920s, the pearl button industry used an average of 40,000 to 60,000 tons of mussel shells each year, with 2 to 30 blanks cut from each, depending on the size of the shell and the size of the blank.
A “button shell” provided my first knowledge of Muscatine’s industry. When I was a child, my great-aunt Pearl (“Persie”), who lived 90 miles south of Muscatine in Keokuk, showed me a button shell that she’d been given. It reminded me of rolled-out dough from which sugar cookies had been cut in clean circles. I stuck my fingers through the holes and wore the shell like an awkward, fingerless glove. When I asked her about the shell with the missing pieces, my great-aunt, an assembly-line worker at the Dryden/Sheller Globe rubber company, told me about the many pearl button factories in Muscatine and the many people in that town, including a friend of hers, who made their living cutting and carding buttons. My great-aunt and my great-grandmother bought the pearly buttons to sew onto the shirts and dresses they made. When the garments wore out, they snipped off the buttons and saved them in a jar. Some buttons were probably reused, but most were eventually lost or thrown away. Even though I don’t sew, I too save buttons in a glass vase on the dresser in my bedroom.
What hadn’t been part of my great-aunt’s story was where the button shells came from or the ecological costs of the button industry. Once, the most diverse collection of freshwater mussels in the world was found in the Mississippi and other midwestern rivers. But now, 70 percent of the mussels species in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio are extinct, endangered, or in need of special protection. In fact, freshwater mussels are the most imperiled group of animals in all of North America. Many of the shells used by the button industry came from what are now rare mussel species or from species that no one has seen in the Upper Mississippi River for over a century.
The story of the Muscatine pearl button industry and how it changed the ecological vitality of the Mississippi River begins in Germany with Johann Bopple (1854-1912). When Bopple was a boy, his father taught him to cut buttons from horn, hooves, bone, and seashells. After young Bopple left his family’s village in Germany, he practiced his craft, first in Vienna and then in Hamburg, Germany, where he had his own button factory for eight years. Then two tragedies struck: Bopple’s young wife died unexpectedly, and in 1879, Germany enacted a new tariff that imposed a heavy duty on imports. Since most of the shells that Bopple used in making buttons were imported from the Indo-Pacific, his business was doomed.
As the founder and pioneer of the American pearl button industry, Bopple is legendary, and like most legendary people, there are competing versions of parts of his biography. Two different stories explain when and where he first saw a Mississippi River mussel shell. One claims that while John Boepple (the American spelling of his name) was swimming in the Mississippi (one source says it was the Sangamon, a tributary of the Illinois River), he cut his foot on a mussel shell. When he picked up the object that had caused his wound, he saw that it was a hard shell with a thick, fine layer of mother-of-pearl, much like the ocean shells that he had used in Germany. He realized that he could make buttons from this. The legend doesn’t say what type of mussel shell caused the epiphany, but I like to believe that it was one of the “heelsplitters,” so named because of a single, wing-shaped extension on the shell.
Another story claims that Boepple saw his first Mississippi River mussel while still in Germany. This story also has different versions. In 1872, William Salter dug mussels either in the Illinois River near Peoria or two hundred miles southwest of Chicago, which places Salter in the Mississippi near Muscatine. Either way, Salter sent the shells to Europe to be evaluated for their commercial potential. When Boepple obtained some of them several years later, he saw that they were of as fine a quality as shells from the Pacific. Boepple immigrated to the United States in 1887 or 1888, lived with his sister in Petersburg, near Springfield, Illinois, and worked on farms and railroad construction crews. His search for the quality shells eventually led him to Muscatine, a beautiful little city tucked beneath the big nose, belly, or bulge of eastern Iowa. There the Mississippi flows from east to west. Henry Lewis’s lithograph of “Muscadine” as it appeared in the late 1840s, shows a small town hugging the riverbank, a large bluff rising behind, several small fishing boats, and a steamboat that overwhelms the view. Mark Twain, who lived in Muscatine and wrote for the Muscatine Journal in the 1850s, claimed that the sunsets he saw there were unsurpassed on either side of the ocean.
Each version of Boepple’s life story leads to the same end: after seeing the excellent and abundant mussel shells that lived in the Mississippi, Boepple decided to establish a button-making business nearby. He opened a shop in Columbus Junction, Iowa, where he made and sold the buttons and baubles that he cut from shells. But without a lathe, Boepple was limited in what he could do. Two legends explain how he got this essential piece of machinery. One says that he simply borrowed a lathe from a friend. Another says that with scraps of old machinery begged from shop owners and neighbors, he built a foot-powered lathe. Boepple cut blanks, polished them, and sold them to a store in Muscatine. But to start a proper business, he needed investors, so he showed the buttons that he’d made to local businessmen. William Molis, superintendent of the Muscatine Waterworks and I.A. Kerr, a carpenter and builder, provided the capital. Boepple moved his lathe to Muscatine and started the Boepple Button Company, the first freshwater mussel button factory in the U.S. The business grew rapidly.
The outer shell on most mussels is unremarkable: black or brown and rather smooth, though some are touched with yellow or green or are ridged, pimpled, or stippled. But within, the shell is coated with a pearly white and iridescent layer of nacre, which defends the shell against parasites and debris. If I take the paper clips out of the bottom shell of the giant floater on my desk and rock it in my hand, tiny mineral crystals in the mother-of-pearl break up the light into little bits of shimmering rainbow.
If you’ve seen an oyster, you know the basic principle of the mussel’s body. Enclosed within the hard, nacre-lined shell is the soft, tan body, an oval divided into two halves. The mussel has a circulatory and nervous system, a digestive tract, and gills for breathing, but since it has no head, eyes, or ears, it’s hard to tell which end is up. It is a well-muscled creature: with its strong abductor muscles, the mussel opens and closes its shell; with its large, muscular foot that looks rather like a human tongue, it burrows into the substrate and buttons itself to the river bottom. Mussels don’t get around much. Instead of pursuing their food, they simply wait for it to come to them.
Most of the time, the mussel lies buried in the river or lake bottom with its shell slightly open and its two straw-like siphons extended. It draws water through the incurrent or branchial siphon and pumps it through its body. The mussel’s gills extract oxygen and food (microscopic plants, bacteria, and organic particles) from the water; with its finger-like labial palps, the mussel sweeps the food sticking to its gills into its mouth. Then the excurrent or anal siphon expels filtered water and waste back into the river. A single mussel can filter several gallons of water per day.
Mussels bury themselves in the sediment and, says Mike Davis, a river ecologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, become “part of the substrata of the riverbed, stabilizing the river and providing roughness that can be colonized by algae and aquatic insects that eat the algae, and then smaller fish that feed on those insects, and then of course the bigger fish.” Davis calls this “a positive feedback loop in the ecosystem.” Because mussels filter algae, protozoans, and detritus out of the water with their gills, thus purifying the water, most people find the flesh disagreeable. Tony Brady of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service likens eating a Mississippi River mussel to drinking a glass of unfiltered river water. But muskrats, minks, otters, and raccoons don’t seem to mind the gamey taste or rubbery texture.
Mussel reproduction is a dicey affair. The male releases sperm into the water, and the female downstream captures it in her siphon and fertilizes her eggs with it. The female stores the glochidia, microscopic larvae, in brood pouches or marsupia in her gills. After she expels the glochidia into the river current, the larvae must attach themselves to the gills, skin, or fins of host fish or perish. The successful glochidium becomes encysted and draws nutrients from the host. Depending on the species and the water temperature, the parasitic phase usually lasts from three to six weeks. The fish gets nothing in return but neither is it harmed by the arrangement.
The metamorphosed juvenile mussel falls to the bottom of the river or lake, preferably where the bottom is sandy or gravelly, stable, and free of silt. There, it burrows in, anchors itself, and matures into an adult. Most species live at least 10 years and some, as long as a century. When threatened, the mussel withdraws its siphons, shuts its shell, and makes like a rock.
A confluence of factors established Muscatine as the center of the pearl industry. Like many other towns on the Upper Mississippi, Muscatine had a thriving lumber industry from the late 1850s until about 1890. First the lumber companies cut the forests on either side of the Mississippi in Iowa and Illinois. When those forests were exhausted, the companies cut pines in Minnesota and Wisconsin and rafted the logs downriver to towns where workers cut the rough logs into boards. When those northern tracts were also depleted, the lumber barons closed the sawmills, lumberyards, and finishing plants in Muscatine and other river towns and cities and moved on to forests in the South and the Pacific Northwest. Consequently, when Boepple began producing buttons in 1890, Muscatine was ripe for a new industry.
The McKinley Tariff of 1890 made imported buttons and the imported raw materials from which they were made too expensive for most consumers and manufacturers. Yet changes in clothing styles—from dresses to shirtwaists and skirts for women; from pullovers to button-down shirts for men—required more buttons than the older fashions. So, too, in 1891, pearl buttons were the rage as both a clothing fastener and a decoration. An advertisement for Boepple’s buttons shows a hale, dark-haired, rosy-cheeked young woman with a high ruffled hat and a many-stranded pearl choker. Her sleeves are decorated with lace and flowers; her ornate, low-cut bodice is lavishly decorated with pearls or pearl buttons. Pearl: the queen of gems, a symbol of purity and perfection, a metaphor for the fine and the rare. Pearl: one of the most popular names for girls born in the U.S. between 1880 and 1911. With its ready workforce, abandoned buildings, and vast mussel beds, Muscatine was well-positioned to meet the nation’s desire for inexpensive, pearl-like, American-made buttons.
The first home for Boepple’s factory was in the basement of the Davis Cooper Shop. When the business outgrew that space, Boepple relocated above Nester’s Blacksmith Shop. Barrels and horseshoes remind us how quickly the technology and lifestyle were changing in last decade of the nineteenth century. Soon, there would be more cars than horses on the streets. Soon, handmade barrels would be replaced by machine-made containers and pallets. Because Boepple made buttons by hand and oversaw every part of the button-making process in his factory, he was always backlogged with orders. His partners, Kerr and Molis, bought a dozen shell-cutting machines, which were designed for cutting ocean shells, useless for cutting river shells. “I repeatedly told these gentleman if they wanted to make any money they should get the right machinery and do as I said, but never could I get what I wanted when necessary,” he recalled years later. Eventually, the partnership dissolved.
In 1897, Congress passed the Dingley Tariff Bill, crafted to support northern manufacturers with even higher duties than the 1890 tariff. Boepple accepted an invitation to consult about the button industry with those drafting the bill in Washington, D.C. After the new tariff went into effect, the number of button-cutting companies in Muscatine grew to 53. Some were cottage industries that only cut blanks; some were large finishing plants that cut, faced, and trimmed buttons. The Federal Writers’ Project’s Iowa: A Guide to the Hawkeye State says that Boepple “jealously guarded his secrets,” kept watch dogs, and even slept in his shop so that no one could steal his process. The stiffest competition, however, came from within, since many of the new businesses were started by his former employees.
By the late 1890s when the button industry wasn’t yet a decade old, it had depleted the mussel population in the river near Muscatine. Local “clammers” either moved on to other rivers or found different work. And, too, many of the blank cutters in smaller businesses were using old, ineffective machinery, which ruined what shells they did have. If pearl button production was to continue, the shell suppliers had to find other sources of mussels and workers had to have better, faster machines.
But Boepple, a dark-haired man with dark, sad eyes and a big, droopy moustache, continued to make buttons by hand. He found new investors, opened a new factory, and employed over 100 people. But the new investors were also set on mechanizing. Eventually, Boepple lost his share in the Muscatine business he’d started. He attempted to establish a button factory 20 miles away in Davenport and worked for a while as an independent shell-buyer. In 1909, he accepted a position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries at its Fairport Fish Hatchery, just a few miles up river from Muscatine, where he participated in research on how to propagate mussels. Ironically or fittingly, in 1911, while a contentious strike by the pearl button workers festered in Muscatine, Boepple stepped on a mussel shell while working in an Indiana river. This foot injury wasn’t as auspicious as the first. On January 30, 1912, he died of blood poisoning at Bellevue Hospital in Muscatine. At the mayor’s request, Muscatine businesses closed during Boepple’s funeral.
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, Boepple’s legacy was apparent along the Mississippi River at pearl button factories in many towns, including Wabasha, Minnesota; Guttenberg, Davenport, Muscatine, Montrose, and Keokuk, Iowa; Andalusia, Kampsville, and Cairo, Illinois; LeGrange and Canton, Missouri. And his legacy continues. Muscatine is still known as the Pearl City. In 2006, the city installed in Riverside Park a 23 foot bronze sculpture of a clammer holding a clamming fork, the long handles gracefully curved and strangely beautiful, high above his head. “Mississippi Harvest,” it’s called.
Prior to 1890, mussels were so abundant and the beds so vast that the bottom of the river seemed paved with cobblestones. The Mississippi hosted the world’s most diverse collection of freshwater mussels. In the 1890s, people came from all over the country to harvest mussels and sell them to the button factories. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s “History of Mussel Harvest on the River” compares the hunt for freshwater pearls on the Upper Mississippi River during the 1890s to the California gold rush of 1849 in its intensity. In the 1890s, there were thousands of clamming boats on the Mississippi, entire mussel beds were picked clean, and millions of mussels were killed.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, there were three methods of harvesting mussels. The most primitive was wading into shallow water and collecting the mussels by hand. “Toe-digging” or “pollywogging” was fine if you didn’t need very many mussels. More sophisticated was using a long-handled clamming fork or tongs to scoop the mussels from the bottom of the river. Most sophisticated was “brailing,” a method invented in 1897, based upon the seine and brail method of fishing by which one lowered a net vertically into the water and, when it was full, pulled it up with ropes and pulleys or a pole—the brail. The mussel brailer built an 8-foot long frame of wood or metal pipe with 20, 30, or more lines of various lengths hanging from the frame. To the end of the line, he attached small grappling or “crowfoot” hooks. He lowered the crowfoot drag bar in front of his jon boat and drew it across a mussel bed. In response to this threat, the mussel clamped its shell shut—on one of the hooks. When the brail was heavy, the clammer pulled it out of the water, stood it on the side of the boat, and removed the mussels.
Back at camp, women and children killed the mussels by cooking them in a water-filled tank or cauldron. Once the shells cooled, they pried them open, cleaned out the soft, cooked bodies, and sorted the shimmering shells by size and species. The shells were hauled by wagon, train, truck, or barge to the factories; the meat was thrown back into the river or fed to hogs. Among the most desirable species for buttons were ebonyshell, washboards, three-ridge, muckets, pimplebacks, elephant-ear, fat pocketbook, “niggerhead,” winged maple leaf, yellow sandshell, and Higgins’ eye.
In the early years of the industry, clammers sold the shells by the pound. But as demand increased, they sold them by the ton. In 1897, one ton of mussels netted about $12 a week (now about $300). In 1899, a clammer earned about $10 a week, twice what a laborer earned. Finding a large slug, a pearl shaped like a tooth or a big piece of puffed rice cereal, brought a nice bonus. Finding a round pearl was like hitting the jackpot, since it brought what now would be several thousands of dollars. Most clammers loved the freedom of living and working on the river. But at the end of the season, most returned to the din and darkness and seemingly endless repetition of the button factories.
When John and Nicholas Barry visited a button-making factory located near their father’s plumbing business in Muscatine in 1898, they decided that they could design a faster and more efficient button-making machine. What they invented were two automatic machines: one for “facing” or cutting patterns in the buttons and one for drilling holes. In 1904, they further streamlined the process with the “double automatic,” a single machine that both cut and drilled. This invention transformed the pearl button industry. One double automatic could face and drill the blanks produced by 7 cutting machines, over 21,600 buttons per day, at a quarter of the cost of the older method. In 1903, the Barrys sold their pearl button factory to Henry Umlandt who renamed it the Automatic Button Company. In 1905, Muscatine button makers turned out 1.5 billion buttons, well over one-third the world’s button production.
During the industry’s peak from 1913 to 1919, almost half of Muscatine’s population of about 16 thousand was employed in some aspect of button-making from clamming to designing, manufacturing, marketing, or record-keeping. The factory jobs were clustered around several operations. The most skilled and highly paid was that of the button cutter who used a revolving saw to cut as many blanks as possible from a single half shell. The cutter dropped the blanks into a bucket which another worker, usually a boy, toted to the grinders, who removed the rough outer side of the shell (the “bark”) and ground the blanks to a uniform thickness. At the finishing machines, workers carved out the center, drilled holes, and trimmed the edges. Buttons were fed into this machine by hand, one at a time. Next, workers polished the buttons by tumbling them for a day and a half in a churn filled with water and powdered pumice. Then, they washed and dyed the buttons, dried them in sawdust and moved them onto the sorting tables. Finally, women and girls sorted the buttons according to quality, color, and luster, sewed them onto cards by hand or machine, and packed them in boxes for shipping.
Only men could be button cutters, the highest paid job in the factory. Women did most of the other jobs, earning about half of what a cutter did. Many workers were paid by the piece rather than by the hour. In the early years of the industry, the work week was 54 to 72 hours long. In the absence of health and safety regulations, button-making was dangerous work. Workers used blades and grinders and worked near shaft-powered belts. The shell dust caused eye and respiratory problems, workers stood or sat hunched over for long shifts, and the water in which the shells soaked so that they were easier to cut was often a stagnant, bacteria-filled brew. And the workforce included children.
In 1910, about one thousand Muscatine button workers formed the Button Workers Protective Union #12854, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Any button-maker over the age of 14, male or female, whether employed making buttons at home or in a factory, could join. What the workers wanted was fairer counting and weighing practices and a revision in how they were paid for piecework. In response, the majority of Muscatine’s 43 button factories and cutting shops ceased production on February 25, 1911, and locked out 2,500 workers, an action that management claimed was a reasoned response to overproduction. The strike, which lasted 15 months, was dramatic. The factories hired strikebreakers and armed guards to protect them. A striking worker shot and killed a policeman; the police attacked and beat a number of the strikers; someone set what the New York Times called an “incendiary fire” at the Automatic Button Company. The police hired men from Chicago and St. Louis to help quell the violence, and the governor sent three companies of state militia to maintain order. “Many heads were broke following the arrival of the Deputy Sheriffs,” the New York Times reported. Pearl McGill, a 16-year-old button-worker and union secretary, raised money for the striking workers with the rousing speeches that she gave in Chicago, New York, Boston, St. Louis, and other cities. Union membership swelled. May 1912, labor and management agreed to end the strike with all employees returned to their positions and no discrimination against union members on management’s part. While workers had endured many months without paychecks to buy food, fuel, shoes, and medicine, the button companies weren’t adversely affected by the strike.
A 1906 photograph in the Oscar Grossheim Collection at the Musser Public Library in Muscatine shows five clamming boats with crow foot drag bars parked near the riverbank, with one or a few people in each boat. On the shore are half a dozen shacks, a big white tent, and eight people. Houses with gracious porches, brick chimneys, and dormer windows are perched atop the bluff. What you might miss if you weren’t looking carefully is that the shore between the water’s edge and the shacks is blanketed, drifted, mounded with many thousands of mussel shells. Likewise, in a photo from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, circa 1911, about forty children and men are posed on the side of a mussel-shell mountain, so high that the edge of the photograph lops off the top of the peak. The wonder to me isn’t that the pear button industry eventually ended but that, given this excess, it continued as long as it did.
By 1900, the mussel beds near Muscatine had been decimated. During a 3-year period, clammers took 10,000 tons of mussel shells from a 1 1/2 mile long, 300 yard wide bed near New Boston, Illinois, about 20 miles downriver from Muscatine. After they’d exterminated the mussels in that bed, they moved on. In 1909, there were 2,600 clamming boats on the Mississippi. In 1911, there were so few mussels that the number of boats had dropped to 400. Clammers moved on to other parts of the Upper Mississippi and its tributaries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Illinois. By 1920, shell tonnage harvested from those regions also declined sharply. For instance, between 1914 and 1929, the mussel harvest from Lake Pepin, a naturally occurring lake in the Mississippi between Minnesota and Wisconsin, dropped from over 3,000 to 150 tons as the mussels were killed off. Then clammers moved to many other rivers, including the Fox, Wabash, Ohio, White, Arkansas, and Tennessee. In the 1930s, button manufacturers advertised their buttons were made from mussel shells pulled from rivers in 19 states.
Ebonyshell (Fusconaia ebena) was the most coveted species for pearl buttonmaking. In fact, clammers were paid more for the ebonyshell’s thick, inflated shell with its high quality, white, lustrous, mother-of-pearl lining than any other. Also desirable is yellow sandshell, whose white nacre is tinged with cream or salmon, and pistolgrip, a pustule-covered shell shaped like a pistol handle. Now, the ebonyshell is endangered in Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin; both the yellow sandshell and the pistolgrip are endangered in Iowa and threatened in Wisconsin.
The depleted mussel beds were of such concern to the button manufacturers that they asked for assistance from the U.S. Fish Commission (now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service). In 1908, Congress established the Fairport Fish Hatchery eight miles east of Muscatine on land donated by the Association of Button Manufacturers. Congress’s goal wasn’t to save imperiled species but to preserve an industry that employed thousands and made millions. From 1909 until his death in 1912, John Boepple was one of the researchers at the hatchery.
What did the factory owners, the clammers, the assembly line workers and others who profited from mussel shell buttons think of the decimated mussel beds? Did they assume that they would rebound and the harvest would continue? Did they ever wonder what would happen to other aquatic organisms when mussel populations declined or crashed? Did they believe that some other material, natural or human-made, would replace the shells so that the double automatics, sales, and paychecks would continue without interruption? Or were they so preoccupied—with rumors of war in Europe, the polio outbreak in Iowa, the long button-workers’ strike in Muscatine, the sinking of the Titanic, and all those people coming from Mexico to Muscatine to pick fruit and vegetables and to build the railroads—that none of these questions occurred to them?
Changes in the river also contributed to the diminishment or disappearance of the mussel beds. Because mussels are filter feeders, contaminants from agriculture and industry accumulate in their tissues and sicken or kill them. Pollutants also sicken or kill the fish that host the mussel’s glochidia. No fish hosts, no mussels.
Mussels need free-flowing water for reproduction and feeding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s system of locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi turned rivers into navigationpools with stabilized water levels. This altered flow regimes, water depth, and temperature. Dams and impoundments reduced the velocity of the current and its ability to carry sediments. Silt, sand, and clay drop out of the water column and settle on the river bottom, which can bury and suffocate mussels. Locks and dams also affect the migration of host fish. After Lock and Dam 19 at Keokuk began operating in 1913, some fish and mussel species were not seen again north of the dam. One of these fish, the skipjack herring, whose upstream migration was blocked by the dam, is the only known host of the ebonyshell and elephant-ear mussels. No fish host, no mussels.
Now, freshwater mussels are the most threatened and endangered group of animals in all of North America. Filter-feeding mussels prevent or limit those bacteriological or algal infestations that endanger the well-being of the entire aquatic ecosystems. Because this important work is largely unseen and unsung for most people, saving mussels isn’t as urgent or as glamorous as saving polar bears, right whales, California condors, or Karner blue butterflies.
In 1946, Muscatine celebrated the 50th anniversary of the button industry. In preparation for the celebration, the employees at each of the pearl button factories voted for a queen candidate to represent that company in the competition for the title of “Button Queen.” Though he did not attend the ceremony, Ronald Reagan chose the queen and sent a representative from Warner Brother Studios to announce his pick. On July 4, the winner was named and crowned at a coronation ceremony. When Helen Burke of the Automatic Button Company heard that she had won, she fainted. After she was revived, she took her place of honor, seated inside the opened yet still hinged valves of a giant, replica mussel shell on the button industry float in the July Fourth parade. The other queen candidates, one each from Iowa Pearl Button, Hawkeye Pearl Button, Perkins Button, McKee Button, Muscatine Pearl Works, and Weber Button, sat on the lower level of the float in long, white dresses.
In 1946, the pearl button industry was a dying star. Several of the major factories closed during the 1930s and 1940s, including U.S. Button. In 1946, there were only seven button factories left in Muscatine and one in Washington, Iowa. What caused this reduction was shortage of freshwater mussels and the availability of a viable substitute: plastics. Some factories had been experimenting with plastic buttons since the 1920s. But it was the government’s research with plastics during World War II that created a higher quality material and technology. Manufacturers found that plastics were cheap, easy to work with (the double automatics were adapted to cut blanks from sheets of plastic), and better able to withstand washing machines and the new detergents than mussel shell buttons. Most importantly, plastic doesn’t run out or die off.
In 1955, Weber & Sons Button Company made its first acrylic button. Two years later, it switched to polyester. J & K Button, owned by William Umlandt and Barry Hahn, was the first factory to make only plastic buttons. “I’ve always stood up for the pearl button,” Umlandt said, “but I’ve got to say, and with great regret, that the plastic button is a better button.” By 1957, McKee Button Company had switched to plastics as well. Now, the three remaining button companies in Muscatine—Weber & Sons, McKee, and J & K—manufacture polyester buttons. Instead of truckloads of wet and smelly shells being transported to Muscatine from far rivers, polyester syrup arrives in clean, tidy tubs.
About the same time as pearl buttons were being phased out, a new use for mussel shells developed. In 1893, Kokichi Mikimoto, a Japanese oyster farmer, was awarded a patent for culturing round pearls through the process of surgically implanting a bead or nucleus made from mussel shell into the oyster. In response, the oyster secreted a nacreous coating around the irritant: a pearl. Since it took a ton of shells to produce a mere 40 to 60 pounds of pearl nuclei, mussel shells for Japan’s cultured pearl industry became a major export for states along the Mississippi River in the 1960s. At its zenith in 1993, the industry exported almost 7,000 tons of shells. In the mid-1990s, the mussel shell market collapsed when the Chinese developed beadless or tissue-nucleated pearls, produced from a tissue graft rather than a shell bead.
During the mid and late 1970s when I lived in Iowa City, I frequently took the Trailways bus home to Burlington, 40 miles downriver from Muscatine. The bus followed Highway 22 into Muscatine and, before heading south on Highway 61, wound through downtown to the bus depot. We’d pass the old brick buildings near the river, much like the old brick factories and warehouses in other Mississippi River towns, except that in Muscatine, they once housed button factories. I remembered Great-Aunt Persie’s story about thousands of workers streaming in and out of the factories at the beginning and end of shifts; the machines within rattling and roaring; glistening mussel shells entering the factories at the loading dock doors and exiting by those same doors as the iridescent disks that would hold up trousers or fasten shirts and blouses, pajamas, coats, and rompers. I regretted that this part of Muscatine was a shadow of what it once had been. But then, I didn’t know what the pearl button industry had done to the river.
Since the turn of the new millennium, various wildlife and environmental agencies have been working to restore mussel populations in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. A species of special concern is the Higgins’ eye pearlymussel (Lampsilis higginsii), listed as a federally endangered species since 1976. The outer shell of this beautiful mussel is smooth, yellowish brown or olive with green rays; the inner shell is silvery-white, iridescent and touched with cream, pink, or salmon. The Higgins’ eye was once common, but like so many other mussel species, its numbers were decimated by the pearl button industry, and its prospects for recovery further compromised by the locks and dams and the rising levels of chemicals, sewage, and toxic metals in the river. Added to that is a new threat: the invasion of the Upper Mississippi by Eurasian zebra mussels in the 1990s. These interlopers attach themselves to any surface, including the shells of other mollusks. Zebra mussels so infest the shells of native mussels that the latter can’t travel, burrow, open and close their shells, eat, or breathe.
To save the Higgins’ eye, experts extract microscopic glochidia from brooding females and inoculate host fish with them. They place the larvae-infested fish in cages in the river until the larvae transform into juveniles and fall off. Then scientists harvest the juvenile mussels and plant them in the river.
One of the reintroduction sites is Pool 16, which extends from Lock and Dam 16 near Muscatine to Lock and Dam 15 near Davenport. In October 2003, scientists found substantial numbers of juvenile and adult Higgins’ eye mussels in this area. Four years later, the Mussel Coordination Team, a coalition of 11 federal, state, and private agencies lead by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, bolstered the strength of that population by taking 4,700 Minnesota-raised “sub-adults,” 2- and 3-year-olds, and releasing them into Pool 16, not far from the Fairport Biological Station where John Boepple once worked. Divers marked the shells with a dot of black glue and placed the mussels near a rope that they anchored to the riverbed so researchers could find the marked mussels again. For many years to come, scientists will monitor the survival and growth rate of the mussels and the mussel bed.
The harvest they hope for is one of numbers. They hope for a viable population of Higgins’ eye mussels, viable meaning at least 500 individuals that can successfully reproduce. They hope to count growth rings on the shells for many years to come. They hope to find many thousands of glochidia hitching rides on fish to other parts of the river, beyond the scope of their study, where the juveniles will fall to the river bottom and live long, productive lives. They hope the numbers will reveal that the river has become healthier, since mussels filter the water, making the river cleaner for all who use it—catfish, diving and dabbling ducks, water celery, dragonflies, eagles, algae, water snakes, common map and smooth softshell turtles, and people. They hope that when the numbers are in, Higgins’ eye and other native mussels will be so abundant that once again, the river bottom will appear to be paved with cobblestones.
Alexander, Melanie K. Muscatine’s Pearl Button Industry. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.
Anfinson, John O. The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
“Barry Name is Linked with Industrial Life for Four Generations.” Muscatine Journal. May 31, 1940. InIowa Old Press—An IAGen Web Special Project. http://www.iowaoldpress.com/IA/Muscatine/1940/MAY.html.
“Button Workers Indicted: Muscatine Grand Jury Holds Labor Officials Responsible for Workers.” New York Times. December 31, 1912. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F5OB 1 5F63555 1 7738DDDA80894D9405B828DF I D3.
Davis, Mike. Quoted in Mike Brunker, “Mile 640: Gambling, Shellfish and a Nuclear Reactor: Survival and Development on Ancestral Homelands.” MSNBC. http://www.msnbc.msm.com/id/5591511/ns/news_The-Mighty-Miss/t/gambling_Shellfish_nuclear_reactor/#.Trk9W65mBQ.
Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration for the State of Iowa. Iowa: A Guide to the Hawkeye State. Viking: New York, 1938.
“History of Mussel Harvest on the River.” USFWS-Freshwater Mussels of the Upper Mississippi River System. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. http://www.fws.gov/midwest/mussel/harvest.html.
Kurtz, Jeffrey J. “Resentment Ran High. . .: The Button Worker Strike of 1911.” Pearl Button Museum, 2003. (no longer available online)
“The Pearl Button Story.” Iowa Pathways 2005-08. Iowa Public Television. http://www.iptv.org/iowapathways/mypath.cfm?ounid=ob_000031.
Pearls, Kari. “Pearl Clamming and Pearl Button Clamming on the Upper Mississippi River.” http://www.karipearls.com/pearl-clamming.htm.
Regennitter, Melissa. “Engineers Show Off Their Mussels.” Muscatine Journal. October 3, 2007. http://www.muscatinejournal.com/news/local/article_8dac5c5O-385d-52859066-cdf9d2be74e5.html.
Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.
“UI Engineer to Help Release Endangered Mussels into Mississippi River Oct. 2.” University of Iowa College of Engineering. October 1, 2008. http://www.engineering.uiowa.edu/news/newsDetail.php?newsID=88.
Lisa Knopp is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction, and is a visiting faculty member at Goucher College’s low residency M.F.A. Program in creative nonfiction in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of four collections of essays. Her essays have appeared in Prairie Schoonerand Shenandoah, as well as many others. Five of her essays have been listed as “notable essays” in Best American Essays.
© Lisa Knopp