This unpretentious cover was sent by William Lewis, Sydney to the Hawkeye Pearl Button Co., Muscatine, Iowa, U.S.A., and it has quite a story behind it. The blue 2½ d Roo on map of Australia stamp is postmarked with a roller cancel, SYDNEY/ DE 19/ 1917/ NOON/ N.S.W. (Figure 1).
The making of buttons from mother of pearl was introduced into the United States about 1855, but at that time the shells were brought from China. In 1890 not one fresh water pearl button was made in this country, but ten years later the industry constituted the second most important branch of the trade, and to J. F. Boepple, a former resident of Muscatine and later of Davenport, belongs the credit of making buttons from fresh water clam and mussel shells in the United States.
Mr. Boepple learned the art of pearl button making in his native city, Hamburg, Germany. In 1891 he formed a company here for the manufacture of the article from the “unio,” or “nigger head” shells, as they were commonly termed by the people living in localities indigenous to the product, which were originally found in great banks along the river front of Muscatine. From that small beginning one of the great industries of this city has grown until today the pearl button output from the Muscatine factories rivals, if it does not surpass, that of any city in the world.
At least 4,000 people, men, women and children, are given employment in the manufacture of pearl buttons in Muscatine. Many women and girls work at home stitching the buttons on cards; others are in the finishing departments of the factories. From a small beginning, the button industry in Muscatine has grown to huge proportions. From one small factory many large ones is the record of the present day, and now a half hundred concerns are engaged in turning the shell into buttons that find a market all over the globe.
Among the more prominent factories are the Automatic, Bishop & Hagerman, Empire, Fred C. Grau, Hawkeye Pearl, Hirsch & Company, Ideal, McKee & Bliven, Model, Muscatine, Pioneer, Richards-Smith Company, Schildberg Brothers, Schmalz Brothers and Vienna, with an annual payroll of over $1,000,000 (Figure 2).
Muscatine is recognized as the button center of the world, and since the inception of the manufacture of these useful little articles, Muscatine men have branched out in all directions. For example, one local concern has factories in Keokuk, Canton and Oskaloosa, in which a total of 385 men are employed. All up and down the Mississippi, Illinois and rivers at farther distances the sheller and manufacturer have gone forth from Muscatine to spread the fame of the town and incidentally pile up a few millions of dollars (Figure 3).