Pearls Along the Mississippi: An Unsung Labor Hero Gets Her Due

Kari Lydersen

Workers in Muscatine sit atop a pile of Mississippi River shells, then used to make a third of the world's buttons. The photograph was taken in the early 1900s.

MUSCATINE, IOWA — Today the town of Muscatine, Iowa, which overlooks the Mississippi River, looks relatively inconspicuous — one of many working-class river towns with grassy parks abutting the flood-prone wide river, brick factories-turned-bars along the main street and ornate but peeling Victorian homes up on the hill.

But there are hints of Muscatine’s illustrious past: a riverside sculpture of a man in a flatboat with clams surrounding his feet, raising two shellfish rakes above his head; the word buttons” emblazoned in chipped paint on some of the old brick structures. In its heyday, this area produced an astounding one third of the buttons sold worldwide — shiny, delicate pearl” buttons produced from shells of the wealth of clams and mussels that once filled this stretch of the Mississippi, where a bend taking it east-west (rather than north-south) calmed the current enough to allow the shellfish to proliferate.

The local button industry was started in 1891 by an enterprising German immigrant, John Fredrick Boepple, skilled in making buttons from sea shells, who brought his manual-operated button press machine to Muscatine and launched a quickly mushrooming industry. Soon thousands of men were collecting shellfish from the river and its tributaries, and thousands of women and teenagers turned them into glistening buttons sewed onto decorative small cards with names like Mermaid and Blue Bird.

Pearl was the name for the shell interiors used to make the buttons, and it was also the name of a fiery young labor activist renowned in her time but relatively unknown in more recent decades. But she appears to be enjoying a resurgence of fame now.

Industry spy turned crusading organizer

Pearl McGill started working in the button factories as a teenager as a sort of spy for the industry, recruited by her uncle’s friend to see if workers were as shiftless and lazy” as bosses suspected. More likely, many say, was that the company wanted her to report on union organizing activities. McGill was also trying to earn money to study to be a teacher.

Though her job was to report to the button industry power brokers, young Pearl soon found herself sympathizing more with the workers. Soon she was an activist and prominent member of the Women’s Trade Union League and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helping to organize the button workers and also traveling around the heartland and the east coast to make speeches and play a key role in the famous textile workers strikes of 1912.

The Muscatine button workers battled with politicians and bosses, with strikes, violence and intrigue common. All the drama ended several decades later when much-cheaper, similar-looking plastic buttons became available. The pearl button industry basically died, except for small demand for vintage buttons for designer clothing.

(The industry’s sharp decline was good news for native mussels and clams, which have been wiped out in many parts of the Mississippi River system, though efforts are underway to help restore them.)

A free museum in Muscatine pays homage to McGill — who did end up getting a scholarship to study teaching, from fellow union activist Helen Keller — and to the role of socialism and unions in the button industry and the workplaces of that time. On my visit to the museum last week, the author of a new book about McGill — along with one of McGill’s now-elderly relatives — happened to be there.

Jeffrey Copeland’s new book—“Shell Games: The Life and Times of Pearl McGill, Industrial Spy and Pioneer Labor Activist” — is a fictionalized take on McGill’s dramatic life, including her murder on the banks of the Mississippi River and the question of whether her union activities played a role in her killing, in 1924 when she was just 29. A jealous and unstable ex-husband was blamed.

Meanwhile in recent years, others have published nonfiction accounts of McGill’s life, based in part on the young worker’s letters, including to her parents, who lived a simple, conservative country life on an Iowa farm.

One of those letters, provided to the Iowa Women’s Archives by Kate Rousmaniere, said:

The militia got out in the streets at Muscatine the other day to break the crowd away from one of the factories and some of the girls caught a solider boy up on fourth street and took his gun and cap and coat away from him and beat it. Ha! Ha!

A play was also staged in the area in March, during Women’s History Month: Bread, Roses and Buttons: Pearl McGill and the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike,” written by Janet Schlapkohl at the University of Iowa Theater Arts Department.

100 years later, a Muscatine lockout

Meanwhile a dramatic and bitter labor conflict has played out in Muscatine in recent years, though without the prominence or massive community support of a century ago. For the past three years, about 300 union members with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union have been locked out of a corn products plant called Grain Processing Corp (GPC) on Muscatine’s river bank, which makes corn syrup, corn oil, corn-based alcohol and other products for the global market.

Tattered signs supporting the locked-out workers still adorn the windows and porches of some local houses, but for the most part, after a burst of solidarity, the town has moved on.

The UFCW workers were locked out after refusing to agree to a new contract that gave the family-owned company the right to replace them with nonunion contractors. Now the plant is indeed up and running with nonunion workers. The union continues to demand members’ right to go back to work, and they say safety and productivity have suffered since the new workers were brought in.

Meanwhile the plant poses a health and environmental risk to nearby residents and a swath of the Mississippi River valley, since it emits high amount s of particulate matter that is linked to respiratory and cardiac disease. The emissions also contribute to the area being out of compliance with federal standards, meaning it is much harder for new job-creating industries to open if they would release any particulate. 

A community group has for the past several years been working to draw the connections between the labor issues and the environmental issues around GPC and other area industries, including filing a lawsuit against GPC and framing the struggle as an environmental justice fight. The group is called Clean Air Muscatine, so the acronym — fittingly evoking the town’s storied shellfish past — is CLAM.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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