MUSCATINE, Iowa–In the 1920s, the pearl button industry reached it’s heyday with Muscatine at its epicenter. Annually, the city produced 1.5 billion pearl buttons, cut from mussel shells harvested from the Mississippi River. A plentiful natural resource at the time, these animals coated the riverbed, standing three feet deep in some places. With people up and down the river collecting them for profit, it represented the goldrush of the Midwest.
To lower the cost of production, Muscatine button companies bankrolled blanking shops across the country. It proved more economical for these blanking shops to cut local mussel shells into buttons and then ship the buttons to Muscatine by rail and barge for finishing. Button companies then sold their products around the world, as people considered them a mark of wealth and success.
Recently, one of the last button factory, the McKee Button Company, closed after 130 years in business (J&K Button continues to operate in Muscatine). While cleaning out an office vault, the McKee family found five boxes of employee records from blanking shops in Paducah, Kentucky; Logansport, Indiana; and Centerville, Iowa. They donated these records to the National Pearl Button Museum @ History and Industry Center. In total, the National Pearl Button Museum has found that 19 states supplied shells to Muscatine and that seven of these had blanking shops as well.
Upon receiving this treasure trove of genealogical data, former National Pearl Button Museum Director Terry Eagle and Office Manager Angie Weikert contacted the Nauvoo, Illinois Church of Latter Day Saints. The group has connections with the church’s Family Search department in Salt Lake City, Utah, which collaborates with Ancestry.com. Through this partnership, genealogists in Columbus, Ohio have begun to scan each card. Once completed, people will have the ability to view each record digitally, allowing them to further their genealogical research. The National Pearl Button Museum will retain the physical cards.