Pearl City

Terry Eagle calls river clams Gold. Two days ago I held one in my hand. It had a dark, rough, bark-like exterior, not at all like gold, and a slick coating of mother-of-pearl on the interior, which looked more like Damascus steel than gold, shining in milky silver rings of subtly colored white.

Mr. Eagle is the Assistant Director at the Pearl Button Museum at the Muscatine History and Industry Center in Muscatine, Iowa, a town self-dubbed “Pearl City”. When he says “gold” he’s referring to the economic and social implications of gold rather than its material characteristics—the river clam caused a kind of a gold rush in the Midwest in the latter half of the nineteenth and early half of the twentieth centuries. At the peak of the rush, Muscatine was using the shell in the production of over 1.5 billion “pearl buttons” annually, more than a third of the world’s total production. They poured out of the river-ways and streets of the town, gathered from two hundred species of clam as visually wide ranging as the Heel Splitter, named for its tendency to maul pollywoggers—who clammed using their feet—and the “Pinky”, which were used to make tinted buttons before effective methods for dying shell were invented. Many river clams lived for over a century and grew to be larger than six inches wide with thick shells that make their saltwater counterparts seem as delicate as porcelain.

In its time the pearl button industry was as big as mining, Mr. Eagle told us, as he took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum. A retired firefighter, Mr. Eagle now has a passion for the history of his town as told through the pearl button, a little-known story that remains repressed, because plastic triumphed over shell as the material-of-choice for making buttons, and history is told by the victor. Plastics buried pearl, he said, guiding us from exhibition to exhibition and finally to the basement where a plastic-encased archive safe-guards a collection of pearl-button-related objects, many of which Mr. Eagle has personally collected.

He once found himself standing in line at a deli, in the middle of a dawning realization that the woman in front of him, a woman covered from head to toe in dirt, was in the middle of cleaning out an old pearl button factory. She was literally on the way to the dump to throw away pearl button artifacts by the truckload. Mr. Eagle intervened, saving giant burlap sacks filled with millions of buttons and blanks, some of which he generously donated to our project. He also gave us each an oversized curved button blank that he said was the shell equivalent of a worry stone, because it curves perfectly to fit a thumb. We all put them in our pockets to add to our growing collection of gifted luck objects: mini Ganeshas, lucky stones from the heads of drum fish, a painted rock, a piece of fossilized stone.

According to Mr. Eagle the central story-line of the pearl button industry began with John Boepple, a German artisan, a horn cutter, who decided to travel to a point in America where its mightiest river bends most sharply, in order to gather shells for making buttons. Despite having enough entrepreneurial gusto to move from his homeland to the midland of a faraway country, he was too wed to the slow processes of his craft to fully capitalize on the rich natural resource he found. While he continued to cut buttons by hand, the Barry family, also new to America, saw dollar signs in his product and invented the pearl button equivalent of the cotton gin, industrializing the button business and putting Boepple out of the one he started.

Production swelled; the nation’s clams were barged into Muscatine to be processed, and the Mississippi River went from a sparkling clear waterway veritably clogged with shell-producing creatures to a silty brown river sparsely populated with increasingly smaller and fewer native clams. As the silt settled around Boepple and the environmental impact of the button industry became clearer to him, he became a researcher at a local hatchery, searching for ways to mitigate the unrelenting environmental exploitation he was witnessing. In a final stroke of irony, Boepple split his heel open on a clam shell when conducting field research, got a blood infection, and died. The creature he inadvertently helped to kill off killed him as he was attempting to save it.

There are stories like this one coursing through the main story-line of the Muscatine pearl button industry. Through Mr. Eagle, we heard about a female double-agent working both for labor and industry bosses; about Mississippi river clams that were sent far east to create perfectly cultured Japanese pearls; about poor Pearl Kings and Queens that wore pearl shell suits; about railroad “gypsies” and plastic business duplicity; about broken industry greats and fortunes made and destroyed by the whimsies of fashion.

The best part of all this was that the man who took us on the tour was intimately connected to it all. At one point he led us over to a photograph of a bunch of pearl button industry workers posing on a pile of discarded shells, gestured to a face, and said, “that’s my dad.” He also married into one of the biggest pearl button families in the country, way before he developed any interest in buttons and shells.

In some ways the story of the pearl button is a perfect microcosm of every story related to harvesting natural resources, everything from lumber to lobsters: We wanted something. It was abundant. We took it by hand. We got better at taking. We took by machine. The machine made the thing uniform and regular. The thing disappeared or changed to a point where we couldn’t use it anymore. Now, with industries collapsing from lack of foresight, we are looking at what slipped through our fingers and wondering what to do with our empty hands.

The whole pearl button arc happened at breakneck speed, over the course of about seventy-five years, beginning with a healthy river system veritably spilling with abundance and ending with its clam species halved and a habitat so poisonous that people now caution us against eating the vegetables that we’re growing on top of our own boat because we’re feeding them with unfiltered Mississippi water.

The processing of the shell itself was also incredibly wasteful, making the pearl button industry both an example and an extreme among narratives of environmental change. As the lumber industry was attempting to use as much of its harvested trees as possible, and cattle and even bison processing used a majority of the animal, from tripe to tongue, the river clam was only used for a small portion of its shell. The animal itself was tossed aside, because they were considered too fishy to eat and when they were fed to pigs the pigs became too fishy to eat. Each shell only yielded a handful of blanks, and later on, as shell size diminished, that number dropped so that sometimes a whole organism was used to make a single button.

Some of the most striking images in the museum were the ones that show scalable mountains made up of waste material in peculiar shapes still recognizable as shells but punched through with rows of perfect circles. These photographs make viscerally obvious the enormity of the pearl button operation. Eventually people figured out how to feed the shell waste to chickens, but for a long time they just piled up by the millions or were buried. Now they’re literally bubbling out of the mud all around Muscatine. You can find them in gopher holes and in the river banks, in gardens, and in more curated spots like store fronts, even if the store has nothing to do with buttons. The history is practically oozing to the surface.

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