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Iowa History Daily: January 30 - Boepple the Buttoner

Iowa History Daily: On January 30, 1912, founder of Muscatine Iowa’s world-famous button business John F. Boepple died. Credited with making Muscatine the “Pearl Button Capital of the World,” the industry produced 1.5 billion buttons annually at the peak of production.

Born in Germany, Boepple learned to make buttons in his family business before embarking for America in 1887 to find suitable mussel shells to make buttons. Searching rivers in Illinois before working his way west to Columbus Junction, Boepple’s quest led him to the mussels beds of Muscatine where he decided to set up shop with his partner William Molis.

Although many locals questioned the sanity of the German button-making enthusiast, the shop flourished across the late 1800s. Moving from foot-powered lathes to steam powered engines, the success of Boepple’s business inspired the growth of an iconic Iowa industry. By 1897, Muscatine boasted 53 button-cutting shops fed by ‘clammers’ pulling 3,500 tons of shells pulled from the Mississippi River annually.

As signs of overharvesting emerged, Boepple’s lack of business acumen and insistence of old-world techniques led to struggles. He spent his later life working on innovations related to mussel harvesting and researching mussel beds. While researching shells in 1912, Boepple cut his foot on a shell, sustained a blood infection, and died after a brief hospitalization. #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar


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