John F. Boepple
John Frederick Boepple - Creator of the Pearl Button Industry
John F. Boepple came to the United States in the 1880s as an immigrant from Germany. His knowledge of button making would change the landscape of Muscatine and give it a slogan that's still around today: “the Pearl of the Mississippi.”
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 with which 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 River - and they were plentiful.
When Boepple found these 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 got to work.
Boepple and Molis opened the world’s first freshwater pearl button plant in 1891 that was known as the Boepple Button Factory, and later the Pioneer Button Factory. The factory quickly began producing buttons and used machines that were powered by foot pedals. A few years later, the plant was expanded into a two-story building that was designed for manufacturing buttons. Workers then transitioned to using machines connected to a steam engine, allowing them to produce buttons even faster.
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 an abundance of shells. Dozens of button cutting shops began operating in Muscatine within the first few years of the industry’s launch.
Just before the turn of the century, Boepple started to see warning signs that the Mississippi freshwater mussel supply was suffering. In 1910, Boepple was employed as a shell expert at the government biological station in Fairport, Iowa, hoping to find a way to replenish the mussel population. He investigated shell beds and found possible shells of various types throughout the country that could benefit the button industry. However, he died on January 30, 1912, after getting a blood infection from a shell that cut his foot. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Muscatine.
By the 1920s freshwater mussels were nearly gone all over the county. By the 1950s, the need for a more durable product that required less labor was clear. Some Muscatine factories began manufacturing plastic buttons in 1957, rather than closing entirely. Within the next few decades, however, the button industry had all but disappeared from Muscatine.
According to The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, "Although Boepple died with few assets, the people of Muscatine credited him with establishing an industry that brought wealth and employment to many." He has a commemorative plaque at the Fairport Biological Station near Muscatine.