The mighty Mississippi River plays a lead role in many American legends, including that of the mother-of-pearl button craze in the early nineteenth century. Grandmother’s Buttons was founded in a town that was defined by the muddy shores of the Mississippi so we feel an extra special affinity for the sweet buttons carved from her mussels and clams.
Natural freshwater pearls are found in many American lakes and rivers and have come to be coveted as rare and valuable gems. In the early nineteenth century, The Mississippi River supported a prolific pearling industry and produced some of the most valued freshwater pearls in the world. A few special ones even made their way across the pond to adorn brooches owned by both Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother. In fact, one of the largest button freshwater pearls ever found was used as the centerpiece on Princess Diana’s wedding ring.
Royal treasures aside, Mississippi River mussel shells were most commonly used to manufacture mother-of-pearl buttons. At its zenith there were forty-one button factories operating on the Mississippi River, harvesting over 24,000 crustaceans a year. It was a time when pearlers made and lost fortunes in the same manner as gold prospectors.
One of the leading pearl button manufacturing companies was the American Pearl Button Company of Washington in Iowa. They opened their doors in 1908 and for many subsequent decades manufactured beautiful high-quality pearl buttons from Mississippi River mussel shells. At its peak, the company employed 240 workers and produced up to 20,000 buttons a day. The buttons were sold on cardboard cards branded with the name Lady Washington Pearls. By mid-century, the Lady Washington button cards were commonly found in sewing baskets throughout America.
The American Pearl Button Company of Washington went out of business in 1964 as zippers and plastic buttons came into vogue while overharvesting caused mussel shortages. When they closed their doors for good, hundreds of pounds of buttons were warehoused and forgotten. Then, about a decade ago, Ken Hammer, the great-grandson of the original owner, reached out to us and asked if we wanted to buy the remaining stock. He received a resounding yes which is our standard response to offers to buy never-to-be-found-again caches of antique or vintage buttons. We bought all of his remaining stock sights unseen.
A short time later a truck arrived at our St. Francisville studio and dropped off a substantial load of battered cardboard boxes and dusty grain sacks containing hundreds of pounds of mid-century mother-of-pearl buttons. They filled our studio’s main room and we had absolutely no plan for what to do with them. Nonetheless, we were thrilled to have an opportunity to preserve this important piece of American button history.
Included in the bounty were old sample cards, brochures, and a booklet titled The Romance of Pearl Buttons. We were suitably awed when we realized the unimaginable amount of work that went into producing these sweet buttons. First, the clams and mussels were harvested from the Mississippi mud and then boiled and cleaned. Round button blanks were then carved from the shells and each button was tumbled, carved, drilled, and polished. When finished, the buttons were sewn onto Lady Washington Pearl button cards. The craftsmanship required to create these beauties was a far cry from the few seconds it takes to machine mold a plastic button today.
Our creative juices started to flow as we carefully sorted through the mountain of delightfully carved and polished pearl buttons that had invaded our studio. Almost all of the buttons were a natural, lustrous white color so our first project was to design jewelry that honored the simplicity of these delicate white pearls.
Later we discovered we could tint the pearl buttons with a special acid-based dye so we started coloring them in small batches on the stovetop in our studio in a process that is very similar to dying easter eggs. Gradually a portion of our pearl button collection took on a rainbow of colors that ideally co-mingled with the handmade Czech beads and Swarovski crystals we use in many of our jewelry designs.
Sadly, the harvesting of natural American freshwater pearls has mostly come to an end as a result of both overharvesting and the invasion of Zebra Mussels from Europe. Consequently, the natural pearls in our jewelry are becoming more rare and valuable as time goes on. So, we’re so thrilled to be able to give these gorgeous historic artifacts new life in jewelry pieces you can pass down as heirlooms for future generations to enjoy.