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.
Pearl buttons will be one of the objects featured in the exhibition “[art]ifact: Where History Meets Art” which will run at the Pump House Regional Arts Center from February 26 through April 16. They will be displayed with a piece by artist Ingvild Herfindahl, created as a response to the history of button making in the region. “[art]ifact” is a collaboration of the Pump House, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Public History Program, and the La Crosse County Historical Society.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on January 16, 2016.