Lady Washington Pearl Buttons

12/10/15

We love buttons, all kinds of buttons, but most of the buttons we use are fairly fancy antique brass ones from the late 19th century. About 6 years ago, though, we had the chance to buy a literal truckload of the most basic button of all, the iconic pearl button. Ken Hammer, great grandson of the original owner of the American Pearl Button Company of Washington, IA, was selling the remaining stock of the family button business, which closed in 1964. When our truckload of pearl buttons arrived, we really had no idea what we would do with them; we just knew we had to preserve this important piece of American button history!

Cards & measuring card

PearlCharmNecklaces

After several months of trial and error, we developed a heat transfer process that allowed us to put images, both full color and black and white, on the buttons. We used the solid surface, no-hole buttons for this purpose, making initial charms with the smaller ones and lovely, full color vintage image pendants with the larger ones. Both have been immensely popular.

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Almost all of the buttons were in a natural, lustrous white state. We soon discovered that we could color them with special acid-based dyes, creating a rainbow of pearl buttons that mix beautifully with handmade Czech beads and Swarovski crystals. We dye these buttons in small batches on a stove top, much like Easter eggs!

pile of shellsphoto drilled shells

factory women

The history of the American Pearl Button Company is fascinating. Opened in 1908, the company spent decades turning mussel shells from the Mississippi River into high-quality pearl buttons. At the its peak in 1948, it employed 240 workers and produced up to 20,000 buttons a day, using steam-powered drilling and carving machines. Sold under the brand name “Lady Washington Pearls,” cards these buttons could be found in almost every mid-century sewing basket in America.

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Decades later the American-made pearl button buckled under the pressure of foreign competition, limited availability of shell, use of zippers, and the refinement of plastic buttons. We are happy to be able to give new life to these beautifully made buttons, to bring them back to the banks of the Mississippi River to be made into jewelry for a new generation to cherish.