John O. Boepple
John Frederich Boepple - The Maker of the Button Industry
John F. Boepple came to America in the 1880s as an immigrant from Germany. His knowledge of button making would change the landscape of Muscatine and give it it’s slogan, “Peal of the Mississippi.” Though this process was not quick, and Boepple’s determination to find the perfect shells to craft buttons lead him to Muscatine.
Boepple’s button business failed in Germany when tariff changes increased. After arriving in America, Boepple was on a quest to find the perfect shell to make buttons. He searched for mussel shells in Illinois but found they were too fragile to undergo the cutting process. In Muscatine, Boepple found thick, tough mussel shells in the Mississippi - and they were abundant.
When Boepple found the shells he was relieved, though there was another obstacle to overcome. Boepple had no capital to begin manufacturing buttons, and he was unfamiliar with the English language. William Molis became his financial partner and the two men signed an agreement and began working.
The men opened the world’s first fresh-water pearl button plant in 1891. The factory used machines that were powered by foot pedals and quickly began producing buttons. A few years later, the plant was expanded into a two-story building that was designed for manufacturing buttons. Workers then transitioned to use machines connected to a steam engine, allowing them to produce buttons even quicker.
Boepple’s grit and success inspired entrepreneurs to take an interest in the button industry. The freshwater pearl button industry had a promising future and Muscatine had a plethora of shells. Dozens of button cutting shops began operating in Muscatine six years after the industry’s launch.
Boepple died on June 31, 1912. Two years before his death he was employed as a “shell expert” at the government biological station in Fairport, Iowa. He investigated shell beds and found possible shells of various types throughout the country that could benefit the button industry.
The endless supply of river clams used for the shells began to noticeably diminish around the 1920s. By the 1950s, the need for a more durable product with less labor needed was clear. The Muscatine Button Factory began manufacturing plastic buttons in 1957, weather than closing entirely.
The Muscatine Art Center will feature an exhibit called “Muscatine’s Pearl Button Industry” through February 28, 2021. Find more information here: https://www.muscatineartcenter.org/explore/exhibition/pearl-buttons
The National Pearl Button Museum tells the town’s story of becoming the Pearl Button Capital of the World through exhibits and events. Find more information here: https://muscatinehistory.org/