Boepple Buttons

Apr 7, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island. 

Here's a short course on the history of work in America. In about 1884, John F. Boepple immigrated from Germany to Muscatine, Iowa. One day he stopped along the Mississippi to watch a dredge boat in operation. The clam shells in the dredged material excited him. He had been a button maker in Germany, and these Mississippi shells were perfect for pearl buttons.

Boepple construction some crude wooden machinery from memory, and went into business cutting, grinding, drilling, polishing fine buttons from the clam shells. Soon, he had a factory with a growing number of employees.

The success of the fledgling button industry soon attracted another Muscatine firm, the Barry Company, who developed better metal machines to make buttons. In order to sell button machines, of course, the Barry Company had to encourage other button factories to open.

The Barry Company's first machines were manually operated by workers who made each button. Automation was the next step, and soon there were machines which could shape the buttons and drill either two or four holes all by themselves.

By 1909 the automatic machines had been linked together. Where once individual workers crafted buttons, there was now an industry with assembly lines, making Muscatine the button capitol of the world. Several button factories were headquartered in Muscatine.

The success of the Barry Company led an expansion of its line, and eventually to its being acquired by eastern interests, who operated the company until 1979.

The manufacture of buttons, too, kept being improved until it was eventually shifted from the highly variable clam shells to plastic, where subtle variations can be built in and faked.

Is this the end of the story? Not for us fickle American consumers. In our mass-produced world, old-fashioned is in again. We pay top prices for new shirts faded by pre washings and jeans scrubbed thin and torn.

Now's the time to get that old button machine out of the antique shop. I bet if you dug up a Mississippi clam, cut and polished your own buttons, and sewed them on all by yourself, you'd be popping them with pride, going up to strangers in the supermarket to say, "I made these."