Published in the Hannibal Courier-Post March 8, 1980
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
During 1915, Hannibal was a thriving industrial town. Articles manufactured in the booming town included cement, shoes, car wheels, cigars, beer, vacuum cleaners, scrubbing machines, paper boxes and buttons.
The buttons were called pearl, and were made from mussel shells found in the Mississippi River. At least two factories operated in Hannibal during the early part of the century, and many people in Hannibal still remember planning in the shell piles surrounding the factories.
The Hannibal Pearl Button Co., was located at Ninth and Collier, and had 100 button stamping machines to punch holes in the mussel shells to produce round slugs which later would be polished and made into buttons. Three buttons could be stamped out of the average-sized curved mussel shell.
The “Story of Hannibal” reports:
“Pearl shell button blanks were stamped out locally, then sent to Muscatine, Iowa, for the drilling of holes. Mussel shells were abundant in the Mississippi until pollution exterminated the mussels. Large stacks of stamped out shells of no special value were stacked around the factory and could be taken away for making walkways.”
Recently, ninth grader Jane Bledsoe, 4021 Overhill, completed a story for her civic project under the direction of Dorothy Sanders. In her report on button factories, she revealed that her father, Leo Bledsoe, had an uncle, Arthur Hamilton, who was employed at one button factory in Hannibal. Bledsoe remembers traveling to Muscatine with his uncle to sell his button blanks. In Iowa, the buttons were polished and holes drilled in them. Bledsoe also remembers a polishing factory in Louisiana.
Hamilton worked at a button factory at the food of Wilson Street near Bear Creek. There the water used to cool the saws was discharged into the creek, as was the dust from the shells. Hamilton later moved his button cutting equipment into his garage where he continued to work until there was no more demand for pearl buttons, Miss Bledsoe’s report revealed.
Another button factory, much larger than the one of Wilson Street, was at Ninth and Collier, across the street from the present site of Hannibal’s bus barn. The building has been torn down, and the area is now used as a parking lot.
With the invention of plastics, plastic buttons soon replaced mussel buttons produced locally. The cost was the primary factory in the pearl button’s demise.
Shells such as the one pictured can still be found around Hannibal, as a reminder of the lost ear of button making.