I’m just back from a conference where I had a full circle experience about mother of pearl buttons, and I have some cool pictures to show you, about how buttons used to be made.
My state arts advocacy organization, the Arts Alliance IL, holds a conference called One State, every other year, it moves around the state, allowing different towns to share their arts scenes. A few years ago, it was in the Quad Cities, and as part of the conference, there was a display of small art quilts. One of them told the story of harvesting mussel shells from the Mississippi River and making buttons out of them. Apparently, the shells, with lots of holes cut out of them, were thrown back in the river, and can still be found.
Fast forward to this week, when I was at One State in Springfield, IL, the capital. I visited the Illinois State Museum, which a former governor had tried to kill, but it managed to stay open (thank goodness!). The Illinois State Museum also used to run the Illinois Artisan Shops, which sold my jewelry. (The former governor did manage did kill the Artisan Shops, which was part of the state museum system and that’s a tragedy.)
Anyway, during the fight to keep the ISM open, I was following their story online and became more invested in it and wanted to finally visit. The current big show there is on Generation X, which is a whole ‘nother story.
Back to the buttons –
Those buttons on the card certainly look familiar, I buy buttons like that whenever I see them, sometimes as much for the charming vintage card as the buttons themselves.
Here’s a look at some of the tools used in the process, and below that, I’ll post the picture of the signage that tells you what the tools are.
Button Capital of the World
Apparently, Iowa and Illinois along the Mississippi River were huge in mother of pearl button production and Muscatine, Iowa declared itself the button capital of the world! Which may have been true for a while, until overproduction depleted the river of shells plus, plastic was invented.
There’s even a button museum in Muscatine! It’s the National Pearl Button Museum!
If you’re interested in the ecological disaster part of this story, this post has that covered, including the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries getting involved in 1907 to try to preserve the mussels!