The earliest buttons on clothing consisted of a decorative flat face that fit into a loop, and were used singly as sartorial flourishes. Ian McNeil writes in An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology that “The button was originally used more as an ornament than as a fastening, the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley [now Pakistan]. It is made of a curved shell and about 5,000 years old.”
According to Slate’s Visual Button History, “The button became more prominent among the wealthy in the Middle Ages. ‘About the middle of the eleventh century,’ writes Carl Köhler in A History of Costume, ‘clothes began to be made so close-fitting that they followed the lines of the body from shoulders to hips like a glove.’ Buttons helped that snug fit along.
The medieval period was the era when wearing lots of buttons meant big money. Franco Jacassi, reputedly the world’s biggest button-collector, describes this as a time when you could pay off a debt by plucking a precious button from your suit. Italians still describe the rooms where powerful leaders meet as stanze dei bottoni, ‘rooms of the buttons.’
Later, button-making was mercifully accelerated with the Industrial Revolution. An 1852 article from Household Words, a journal edited by Charles Dickens, marvels at the latter-day miracle that was automated button-manufacturing. The writer describes how engravers cut steel dies into the latest fashionable shape, while women and children stamped out pasteboard and cloth to cover the buttons by machine.” During that time Mother-of-Pearl was extremely rare, expensive to obtain, and reserved for royalty.
Mother of pearl buttons did not rise to popularity and become available to the masses until German-born button maker, John Fredrick Boepple immigrated to the United States, according to Burdastyle. “While automation had come to the button making process in Europe in the mid 1800s, the process of stamping buttons from shells required specialized, expensive machinery. Furthermore, the shells Boepple used had to be imported and were subject to an extremely high tariff. With his business failing, John Boepple brought his button stamping machinery to the one place he was sure could supply him an endless supply of shells: the United States and the Mississippi River.
Boepple settled in Muscatine, Iowa at a bend in the river where great amounts of fresh-water clams grew. Thanks to the mighty Mississippi, his mother of pearl button business grew beyond his wildest dreams. By 1900, Boepple expanded his operations to the point that he employed one third of the town of Muscatine, which became known as the ‘Pearl Button Capital of the World,’ out-pacing button factories in Europe.”
Today, we’re thrilled to include this luxurious, classic detail on many of our dress shirts. Made from the inner layer of pearl oysters, our Mother-of-Pearl buttons have a beautiful depth of color, and are virtually indestructible. Furthermore, each button is the creation of a natural product and craftsmanship. After the right shell is selected based on its color, it is cut, sorted, and checked for quality. This is done by hand, before one of two techniques are used to make the holes; with a special tool or with a machine which employs as many as eight different tools at a time. Finally, the buttons are polished to a glossy or matte finish. Explore our selection of dress shirts featuring mother-of-pearl buttons here.