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Pig toes and pimplebacks: the story of Michigan's pearl button industry.

California had its gold rush. But in the early 20th century in Michigan, the focus was on pearls--pearl buttons, that is. Hundreds of "clammers" pulled freshwater mussels from the state's river bottoms to harvest the raw material used to make mother-of-pearl buttons. And several Grand Rapids companies controlled the manufacturing process from start to finish.

The process of mass-producing buttons from clam shells in America started with John Frederick Boepple. Frustrated by high import tariffs on buttons in his native Germany, Boepple immigrated to America in 1887. There he discovered that the abundant freshwater clams of the Mississippi River around Muscatine, Iowa made excellent raw material.

Boepple opened his first button works in that community in 1891. Soon after, copycat shops began to spring up; by 1898, there were 61 shops up and down the Mississippi and expanding to the banks of adjoining rivers as well.

Clammers (clam fishers) gathered and cleaned the mussels. Buyers then secured and shipped them for processing, saw shops cut out button blanks, and finishing shops smoothed, polished, and drilled the blanks into marketable products. Leaving Boepple's traditional methods behind, the industry was revolutionized by belt-powered machinery and automatic processes by 1901.

A Michigan Manufacturer Steps Up

In the first decade of the century, Grand Rapids businessman Martin D. Morris got wind of this opportunity and visited some of the button factories in Muscatine and in Genoa, Wisconsin (a second site with a burgeoning button industry). He brought along a few Grand River clams for the experts to evaluate. They declared them to be "exactly as good as Mississippi clams."

In the spring of 1907, Morris hired 20 Wisconsin clam men and brought them to Michigan as the workforce for his newly minted Michigan Pearl Button Company. The crew temporarily worked on the banks of the Grand River at Eastmanville, west of Grand Rapids, while awaiting the completion of a new structure downriver at Lamont. Seventeen male workers were cutting button blanks in Lamont by early fall.

As Morris proclaimed in the September 28, 1907 edition of the Grand Rapids Press, "the supply of clam shells seems inexhaustible," and orders rolled in faster tlian they could handle them. Unfortunately, the company's funds were not as inexhaustible as Morris' enthusiasm. Morris' firm was reorganized, without him, as the Wolverine Pearl Button Company the very next year.

The finishing portion of the business, the part that turned the blanks into buttons, proved difficult to establish. Such a facility was finally located in the New Raniville Power Building in Grand Rapids in 1911. The company underwent yet another rebirth as the Grand Rapids Pearl Button Company under the presidency of manufacturing magnate E. Alfred Clements. Under Clements, the company functioned successfully for several years before it folded, causing both the Lamont and Grand Rapids plants to be closed down in 1915.

The Grand River clams could not breathe easy with the closing of Clements' company. Warren E. Knott, who held an interest in the earlier firm, continued the work under the flag of the Furniture City Pearl Button Company with a small factory on Bond Street in northwest Grand Rapids. He ran this concern through the 1924 season before relocating to another shop in Fremont, close to the Muskegon River.

The two Grand Rapids concerns proved to be the only private Michigan businesses that undertook the entire manufacturing process from shell to button. (The Detroit House of Corrections used prison labor to make freshwater pearl buttons from approximately 1900 until 1918.)

The Making of a Button

Glimpses of daily life at the Lamont and Bond Street facilities stand as an example of the factory portion of the business. The Lamont building was a two-story structure nestled in a picturesque setting on the Grand at the base of a hill leading down from the town. Inside, a line of horizontal lathes, powered by belt drives, was operated by 15 to 18 skilled cutters. Each lathe was equipped with a hole saw--actually a rolled piece of hardened steel held secure by a chuck. Saws cut varying blank diameters ranging from lA inch to 1 inch. Larger blanks were cut first, then the shell was passed to another cutter to produce the smaller sizes.

Depending on the size of a particular clam and the size of the desired button, between one and 20 blanks could be rendered per shell. Nearly 90 percent of any given shell was waste material, which was tossed aside to form mountains of refuse.

Each worker at this facility filled a 10-quart pail with blanks every day. At the end of the week, he was paid about 5 cents per gross (168 blanks). Later, Michigan cutters were paid by the pound. At the R.G. Woods Button Company in St. Joseph, workers earned $ 18 to $25 a week in 1915. This was the industry standard though the 1940s. The blanks were bagged in burlap sacks and carted away to the finishing plant in Grand Rapids several times a week. Most of the finishing work was performed by women. A 1917 factory inspection of the Furniture City Pearl Button Company counted eight females as part of the overall workforce of 19 people. The finishing plant would have been equipped with a host of specialized machines, such as a classifier to organize the blanks into size categories and a grinder to reduce them to uniform thickness. Following that, the blanks would be fed into a machine that cut face patterns and drilled holes at a rate of up to 72 buttons per minute.

Finished buttons were bathed in acid and tumbled to achieve a high-sheen polish. This step was a highly guarded secret among pearl button firms. John Jasperse, one of the Wisconsin experts brought to Michigan by Martin Morris, possessed one of these secret formulas and may have been responsible for the one used by these factories. Those buttons destined for the retail market were farmed out to local women, who sewed them onto decorative cards meant to catch the eye of potential customers.

Improving the Mechanics

Warren Knott, the Grand Rapids button maker, was one of the few Michigan men who concerned himself with improving the mechanical side of the industry. Between 1908 and 1941, he patented at least eight button-processing inventions. His 1923 design for an automatic button-blank cutting machine caught the attention of the Pioneer Button Company of New York, resulting in a partnership between the two firms.

Knott employed a vertical system in which the saw moved downward like a drill press. According to the patent language, this meant that "all the operator has to do is to keep the machine supplied with shells and change the position of the shells until all the blanks possible have been cut therefrom ... and the machine does the rest."

Knott's plant ran successfully until 1937, using local men operating up to 30 presses. His parents managed the shop and he acted as quality inspector. Even with automated procedures, though, the roughness of the shells still posed a problem. One unnamed employee complained to the Fremont Times Indicator about a 1 1/2-inch gash he suffered, when a large shell spun out of the press and sliced his arm.

Life as a Clammer

The critical story underlying the Michigan button industry concerns the army of seasonal clam fishers who provided the raw material. Theirs was an independent prospector's life punctuated by big scores. While technological changes altered the manufacturing end of the business, a clammer in the 1930s operated much like one from the late 1890s. Whole families set up camps alongside rivers and lived there all summer long. The men clammed while the women and children processed the catch.

An average of 800 clamming licenses were issued in Michigan in the early 1920s, and 1,100 people were engaged in clam fishing by 1929. A whopping 2,460 licenses were issued the following year, indicating the sudden willingness of folks to try their hand at anything to survive the Great Depression.

The dominant fishing method involved a flat-bottomed "John boat," about 14 feet long, and a "brail bar" loaded with crowfoot hooks, each consisting of two wires wound into a four-pronged hook. Several hooks were tied to a line and attached at 6-inch intervals to a l4-to-20-foot galvanized pipe. The living clams would clamp down on the hooks as the bar was dragged along the river bottom. After a drag of about 10 minutes, the bar was lifted by a rectangular underwater sail and set onto a pair of upright brackets. The clams were then picked from the hooks like ripe fruit and thrown into the bottom of the boat.

Several hundred pounds of clams per day per man was considered an ordinary catch using the crowfoot method. In 1913 alone, 801 tons were gathered in the state in this way.

Gathering the Clams

As might be expected, the locations of good mussel beds were tightly held secrets. Milo Fase, who fished along with other members of his family in the Grand River at Ada, made it a point to spread the harvested clams along the deck of his boat. Piles visible over the gunwales could invite nosy questions from onlookers.

Scissor tongs with 12-foot handles, coal forks, and rakes with chicken wire netting were also used to catch clams. Another method, called "polly-wogging," employed bare feet to detect mussels on the bottom.

Whatever the gathering method, the clams were tossed into metal pans, covered with burlap, and steamed over fires to kill them. The "relaxed" clams were then pried open one by one, with the meat thrown to one side and the shells to the other. The meat was carefully examined for the presence of pearls, then discarded or sold to farmers. (Some was even used as fish food by the Comstock Park Hatchery in the 1920s.) In truth, most of the clam meat was left to rot.

Buying and Selling Clams

Only about one in a hundred clams produced a pearl, making them a precious commodity. The vast majority of these were misshapen "slugs" that sold at around $7 an ounce for use in jewelry. Perfectly round pearls were extremely rare, but to Mr. Allen who found a $500 example in a St. Joseph River clam, an unknown man who sold a Grand River pearl to a banker's wife for $250, and the clam fisher who harvested a cherry pit-sized pearl priced at $ 1,200 from the Huron River, rarity meant value. Michigan rivers yielded $8,810 worth of pearls in 1913.

The real money was in the shells. Initially, a ton of clams brought $13, but that amount rose with demand. In 1918, Sarah Tures, a clam fisher on the Huron River at Flat Rock, turned down an offer of $60. "If he gives $60," she stated in a letter, "maby (sic) someone else will give more." The price varied annually from $35 to $100 per ton. If a clammer played the shell game correctly, he or she could make $1,000 a season.

The buyers had to pay out sizable sums to convince fishers like Tures. A Lowell-area buyer named Paul Kellogg paid $82,000 for clams in 1929, and estimated the state total for that year was $500,000. He had around 500 tons of shell heaped upon the Grand River bank by July 1930. In that same year, a buyer named Morris, who worked the St. Joseph River from Union City to Mendon, had an acre of ground with large piles of clams covered with straw to prevent weathering. These buyers shipped their seasonal loads to the factories, where the clams completed their journey into buttonhood.

Gustav "Gus" Liebbe, who started his career as a clam fisher in Muscatine in the 1890s, went on to operate two Michigan cutting plants: at Berrien Springs (ca. 1916 to 1934) and Lowell (1935 to 1946). The weekly output of his Lowell plant, consuming about a ton of clams, produced 210,000 blanks that were then sent to Muscatine for finishing. When his Lowell shop closed in 1946, it was to be the last button works in the state and one of the last in the country.

Depleted Resources

After decades of harvesting, clams began to disappear from Michigan waters. Fishers were unable to catch any in the River Raisin by 1925. And, despite efforts by the Michigan Conservation Department to establish limited protection, there was a rapid decline in the stock of mussels statewide over the course of the 1930s. Pollution also took its toll, leading to a five-year moratorium on clamming beginning in January 1944.

Ultimately, what saved the mussel from extinction in Michigan was not a rule or regulation. It was the introduction of plastic buttons, available in unlimited numbers, colors, patterns, and sizes in the post-World War II era.

Plastic saved the mollusk, but it killed an early Michigan industry.


Technically, freshwater clams are called mussels, but the pearl-button industry used the terms interchangeably. They also referred to the individual types of clams by colorful names, including Pimpleback, Pigtoe, Pistolgrip, Long John, Peanut, Blue Point, Lady Finger, Stranger, and Monkeyface.

Mussels are soft-bodied river creatures that live inside a protective two-part shell made of calcium carbonate. The rough exterior is covered by a papery brownish layer. The smooth interior--the mother-of-pearl layer--is the stuff of clammers' dreams. In Michigan, the Grand River sustained the largest population of clams, but the Kalamazoo, Maple, Muskegon, and St. Joseph Rivers in West Michigan and the Huron and Raisin Rivers in the southeast area also offered exploitable habitat.

Of the 45 mussel species in Michigan, only a dozen or so possessed usable shells. The ideal button shell was oval-shaped, uniformly thick, and sported an outer surface free of bumps or knobs. (Thin outer edges called "tips" were suitable only for low-grade buttons.) No shells were truly ideal, but the Grand River contained three that came pretty close: the Mucket (above), Three-ridge, and Pocketbook.

Gerald P. Wykes is a historian, interpreter, and freelance illustrator living in Monroe.
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Author:Wykes, Gerald P.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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