Collection documents the manufacture of both freshwater pearl and plastic buttons in Muscatine, Iowa, including at least 12 different companies from primarily 1925 to the 1960s.
Scope and Contents:
Collection documents the manufacture of both freshwater pearl and plastic buttons in Muscatine, Iowa, including at least 12 different companies. The records, primarily 1925-1960s, with a few items from 1993 production, include corporate financial records, wage and employment statistics, sales and purchase data, photographs, correspondence, catalogs, and publications. Some records document the Barry Manufacturing Company, a machine tool company which specialized in designing and producing the unique machinery needed for this industry; also background material that places the corporate records into the historical context of the button industry in Muscatine.
The collection is arranged into 14 series.
Series 1: Historical and Background Materials, 1898-1990
Series 2: American Pearl Button Company, undated
Series 3: Automatic Button Company, 1937, 1965
Series 4: Barry Manufacturing Company/The Barry Company, 1890-1980
Series 5: Hawkeye Pearl Button Company, 1914-1968
Series 6: Iowa Pearl Button Company, 1955
Series 7: J & K Button Company, 1993
Series 8: McKee Button Company, 1988
Series 9: Muscatine Pearl Works, 1944-1947
Series 10: Perkins Freshwater Pearl Products, 1944-1966
Series 11: =Rhonda Button Company, 1946-1968
Series 12: Claus Schmarje Button Works, 1914-1941
Series 13: US Button Company, 1915
Series 14: Weber and Sons Button Company, 1900-1976
Biographical / Historical:
Muscatine, Iowa was the primary American manufacturing source for mother-of-pearl buttons made from Mississippi River shellfish, 1890s-1960s. During the industry's peak, there were some 53 small firms making pearl buttons in the area. In the 1930s some of these firms began experimenting with plastics as a substitute for the dwindling supply of shellfish. Several firms successfully converted to plastics and the city remains a center for plastic button manufacture today.
This unique industry drew upon natural resources to provide employment for almost an entire city (Muscatine is still known as the "Pearl City"). The mass production of low-cost buttons was crucial to the success of ready-made clothing and the development of the modern clothing trade. The industry was also involved in early work by American manufacturers to develop synthetic materials to replace increasingly scarce natural resources.
Materials at the Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Industry on Parade (NMAH.AC.0507)
Reel #215, Procesing shell into button blanks, 1954. B. Schwanda and Sons, Denton, Maryland.
The collection was donated by Mary Alice Sessler, Weber and Sons Button Company, Bernard Hahn.,J & K Button Company (November 19, 1993); and Clarence Schmarje (November 19, 1993).
Collection is open for research.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.