In the mid-1800’s, Mother of Pearl, along with precious metals, bone and animal horns – was extremely rare, expensive to obtain and reserved for royalty.
It was not until a German-born button maker, John Fredrick Boepple, immigrated to the U.S. did Mother of Pearl buttons rise to popularity and became available to the masses.
The process of stamping them from shells required specialized and expensive machinery.
As well, the shells Boepple used had to be imported and were subject to an extremely high tariff.
With his business failing, John Boepple brought his button stamping machinery to the one place he was sure could supply him an endless supply of shells – the U.S. and the Mississippi River.
There is a great Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa, where John Boepple set up business.
There was a time when 37% of the world’s buttons (in 1905, that was 1.5 billion buttons) came from the glossy inner surfaces of freshwater mollusk shells harvested by citizens of the small town of Muscatine, on the Mississippi River.
Mother of Pearl is rather easily dyed . . . typically only tinted so the iridescense is not masked – to virtually any color.
*Some information taken from Amy Barickman and Linzee McCray.