Christmas Thimble Necklaces are back! New Fabric Filled Thimbles are here!
It has been over a century since a German immigrant named J. R. Boepple put Muscatine, Iowa on the map with his discovery of the “freshwater pearl”. Until 1888, no one had ever seen a pearl button made of anything except ocean shells, but he changed all that.
Boepple settled near the Mississippi River in what is now Muscatine and spent some time fishing. Among his catch were little creatures that came to be known by such names as pigtoes, eggshell and pimpleback – the freshwater clams.
As luck would have it, Boepple had more than a nodding acquaintance with the process that turned sea shells into ornamental buttons. In Germany, he had learned and practiced the art, and he set out to put his knowledge into practice on the banks of the Mississippi. Using homemade machinery powered by foot treadles, he duplicated the European process successfully and thus founded an industry that would thrive for more than half a century – the manufacture of fresh water pearl buttons. Before long, there were several button factories in Muscatine.
At the factory, the shells were sorted and graded by hand, then cut into round blanks, from which the finished buttons would be fashioned. Economical and profitable in those days before mechanization when hand labor was the rule in the industry, the process by which the buttons were crafted would bankrupt a manufacturer today. In later years when “automatic” machines were used in the drilling and carving of the buttons, the constant attentions of a highly skilled operator were required.
The clam scows probably will never again range the rivers as they did in the old days, and it may be that no one will ever again find an economical way to manufacture genuine fresh water pearl buttons as J.R. Boepple did over a century ago.
That’s why fresh water pearl buttons will always remain valuable and unique. These buttons were lost in warehouse for many years and recently rediscovered. Once this lot is sold you will probably never see antique, hand cut, hand-dyed fresh water pearls like these again.
Save them – they’re a little bit of history.