It was not very long ago that the majority of buttons had a shiny, iridescent quality. In fact, take a look at shirts and dresses as recent as the 1970’s, and you might notice these luminous buttons. They are made of mother-of-pearl, which is the inner shell layer of certain mollusks, and is made out of nacre – the same stuff that pearls are made of. Before the late 1800’s, buttons were predominately an import item in the United States. That is, until John Frederick Boepple came along.
Born into a German button-making factory, Boepple honed his craft and expertise in Germany and Austria until 1887, when he reached a big turning point in his life. Prior to that time in 1887, stiffer and stiffer tariffs were being placed on imported material. Since Boepple used predominately imported shells and horns to make his buttons, this hurt his business very badly. To make matters worse, his wife died suddenly. With nothing left to live for, Boepple headed straight to the one place that he knew beautiful shells were abundant and untapped – the Mississippi River in the United States.
He had a hard road ahead. He had no friends or contacts in the U.S. and he spoke no English. He was focused on the task at hand, however, and even while he performed odd jobs for farmers and business owners in Illinois, he learned enough English to get around, and started collecting odds and ends of old machinery to start constructing a lathe with which to make buttons.
Lucky for Boepple, the MicKinley Tariff of 1890 echoed the stiff import tariffs that had been imposed just a few years earlier in Europe. Until this McKinley Tariff, people had been importing buttons from Europe. For the dual reason that the button industry was suffering in Europe because of the unavailability of inexpensive materials and the fact that it became even more expensive in the U.S. to order the already scant amount of buttons available in Europe, the U.S. was ripe for its own button industry.
Boepple realized he needed to strike while the iron was hot, and promptly moved to Muscatine, Iowa, where the Mississippi River had many thick-shelled mollusks for a fledgling button-maker. He built himself the best equipment he could muster out of the odds and ends he had collected, and started making buttons. He was very good at it, and word got around that mother-of-pearl buttons could be gotten in the U.S. and for a reasonable price.
Two investors, I.A. Kerr and William Molis, took an interest in Boepple’s tiny business, and bolstered him enough to create the very first freshwater pearl button factory in the U.S. and even the world, as European button-makers did not make the buttons in factories. Unfortunately for Boepple, Kerr and Molis did not understand the delicacy required of working with mother-of-pearl, and purchased equipment ill-suited to the process. They were anxious to mass-produce the buttons, which Boepple saw basically as works of art. The alliance soon crumbled, and while Kerr and Molis’s factory stayed open and produced buttons, Boepple made buttons out of his home, and opened a new factory that ran the way he wanted it to.
Muscatine thrived with this new business, and by 1905 produced more than 30% of all the buttons in the world at that time. By 1897 there were 53 button companies in Muscatine alone, not to mention the many other button factories along the Mississippi River. It wasn’t very long before someone figured out a good way to automate the creation of mother-of-pearl buttons, thus making Boepple’s old-world craftmanship (and the time it took to make a button) obsolete.
Boepple stopped making buttons, and concentrated on a freelance business that bought shells for other button companies. He soon realized that the quality of shells had diminished, and was dismayed to find out that this “button boom” had depleted the Mississippi River’s natural supply of mussels. He went to work for the Fairport Biological Station, which was an initiative founded by Congress in 1908 to find out how to propagate mussels for this lucrative American industry.
Boepple modified the tool used most frequently to catch mussels – making it so it spared the younger mussels to allow them to grow bigger and multiply. While he was performing the duties associated with this job, he cut his fot on a broken mussel shell. Just a few months later, he died of blood poisoning in a Muscatine hospital.
To this day, Boepple is credited with the creation of an industry that provided Muscatine with jobs and income for many years.