Button, Button

Jan 14, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you come for a visit to our Mississippi Valley and want to bring a souvenir back to the relatives in Potosi, Wisconsin, here's some advice. Avoid those cute ashtrays made in Taiwan that say, "Greetings from the Quad Cities," or the bumper stickers that say, "Support mental health or I'll kill you." Instead, take a walk along some of the more out-of-the-way stretches of our Mississippi River, where the current has deposited a stash of old clam shells. With any luck, you'll soon find one that resembles a Swiss cheese—with half-inch holes over the whole shell.

That's what you want take home: a bit of distinctive local history. Those shells helped some local resident survive the Great Depression.

The coarse, slimy, green-brown shell of the Mississippi River clam hides a beautiful secret. Inside the shell is a pearly iridescent coating prized for making fine buttons. Beginning in the 19th century, button factories in small river towns such as Oquawka and Muscatine turned out millions of buttons for the shirts and blouses of the whole world. So many buttons were made at Oquawka that several roads paved with crushed waste shell are literally pearly streets.

When the Great Depression hit, button-making became the cottage industry of choice for hundreds of river families. The raw materials were free, the tools inexpensive, and the demand steady so long as people wore clothes. In Andalusia, Illinois, alone, some 40 to 50 people—a tenth of the population—made buttons in their own homes.

Today the button factories are gone, replaced by plastic, but the Mississippi River clam has a new job. They are gathered from the river the same way they used to be, and sent to Japan, where they are crushed into small pieces. The pieces are inserted in Oysters to become the seeds of fine cultured pearls. Perhaps at this very moment you are already wearing a souvenir from Rock Island, very cleverly disguised.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.