Who's got the button?

In the 1890s freshwater pearl button manufacturing exploded—in response to the ever-growing demand of the ready-to-wear industry (and to protective tariffs that discouraged imports). In factories from Wisconsin to Iowa to Arkansas, workers used tubular saws to cut round blanks from mussel and clam shells, which were ground to standard thicknesses, then faced, drilled, and polished. 

Drilling eyes at a “pearl” button factory, 1890s

Drilling eyes at a “pearl” button factory, 1890s

“The manufacture of pearl buttons—chiefly freshwater pearl—was the most important branch of the button industry.”

–Report by the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, 1914 

Button, 1900s

Button, 1900s

Button, 1900s

Button, 1900s

Harvesting mussels in Indiana, about 1911

Harvesting mussels in Indiana, about 1911

Courtesy of Beloit College Archives.

Button-obsessed Charlie Chaplin, 1936

Button-obsessed Charlie Chaplin, 1936

By the 1920s buttons made of synthetic materials were increasingly common. Because these could be made in larger sizes and different colors, ready-to-wear fashions began to feature them. Notice the size of the buttons in this scene from "Modern Times."