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La Crosse County Historical Society discovers, collects, preserves, and shares the history of La Crosse County, Wisconsin.

Object Record

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Object Name Button
Catalog Number 2013.fic.172.01
Description One of eight sets of cards containing 8 pearl buttons. From top to bottom left to top to bottom right: .75'' white 4 hole flat, .5'' white 2 hole flat. 1'' white 2 hole flat, .25'' white 2 hole flat, .5'' white 2 hole flat, .75'' white 2 hole flat with hexagon design, .25'' white 2 hole with a flower design, .625'' black 2 hole flat.
Collection La Crosse County Historical Society Collection
Search Terms Button
Pearl Buttons
Featured in Things that Matter
Notes These pearl buttons were made by The Wisconsin Pearl Button Company of La Crosse Wisconsin from freshwater clams harvested from the Mississippi River. The Wisconsin Pearl Button Co. opened its first factory at the turn of the 20th century and La Crosse was home to the company's main office. The company sent out 10 different sized buttons and 12 different patterns in both two four-holed style buttons. At the company's peak production period, the company employed 225 persons and in 1914 the company was producing 2500-3000 buttons every minute. Roughly half of those employed worked from home, sewing finished buttons onto cards. Typically men were in charge of making the buttons, cutting the blanks out of the shell, while the women sorted the buttons after they were polished.

Featured in Things that Matter

"They are an object that we use almost daily, and yet rarely think about--unless maybe one is missing. Buttons, specifically pearl buttons, were once a thriving La Crosse industry. The Wisconsin Pearl Button Company opened its doors in 1900. During its operation the factory produced millions of buttons each year.

The company employed over 200 people, many of whom were young women. Local housewives and children also contributed to the industry, sewing the finished buttons to cards for a penny a piece.

Clams with colorful nicknames like “Pig Toe”, “Slop Bucket” and “Elephant Ear” were pulled from the nearby Mississippi River. At the factory they were cleaned, punched, polished, and prepared for sale all over the country. These buttons would have adorned everything from blouses and dress shirts, to army uniforms.

An industry that once thrived was, alas, short-lived: after only 33 years the La Crosse factory was forced to close. This was due to a combination of the depletion of the clam population and the invention of a cheaper material, plastic."

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune.
Title: Buttons
Author: Megan Kautz
Publish Date: January 16, 2016