Saturday, 25 October 2014

The History of MOP Buttons

One of my all time loves is the Mother of Pearl button. There's not a week that goes past here that the postman doesn't delivery me a little package with a few these beauties. I use them in almost everything I make, hats, dolly dresses and of course knits. But can I announce that I have an addiction to playing with my buttons.... some things never change because as a child I used to play with my mothers and grandmothers button collection. There's something about the feeling of your hand moving around a tin full of smooth buttons, sorting through them and discovering shapes and sizes.

So yes, I freely admit I have been caught on numerous times in an hypnotic state with my hand in my button jar... embarrassing I know and the fact that I am openly admitting to it on the internet only serves as proof of my addiction to these amazing, beautiful, dare I say, works of button art!

But it got me thinking.... as I stared fondly at my ever growing button jar, where did they come from and what is the history of the humble vintage MOP button?

I have known for some time there are two kinds of buttons in my collection, river buttons and ocean pearls. The river buttons have a creamier look to them where as the ocean pearls have a very distinctive iridescence. Both though have quite different histories.

River MOP Button
The majority river MOP's come from the USA. They used the mussels growing along the river edge. Button factories popped up along rivers in the United States from the 1890's to the 1940's. The Mississippi River being the largest producer of buttons.

The industry boomed over the first four decades of the 20th Century, like a gold rush people came to the rivers to harvest the mussels and make their fortune. Town after town adopted the button making industry, and hundreds of factories came into existence..

 At the height of harvesting and production the Mississippi saw 2600 barges working the river. In a single year just one  town  produced as many as 138,615,696 buttons!!

The sourcing and production of MOP river buttons slowly ceased towards the end of the 1940's, this stemmed of course from a change in fashion and the introduction of plastic buttons, but equally through the absolute decimation of mussel populations.
Pacific Abalone
A very large proportion of the worlds MOP buttons were also sourced from shells around the pacific, Abalone being the most popular. Australia during the height of the MOP button boom was a major exporter, as well as many other pacific countries. Unlike the collecting of river mussels though, shell fishing was a dangerous affair and many died in the process of collecting these beautiful shells.

Once the shells were collected, they were dried in sun.  

Australia exported the majority of their shells to factories around the world to be cut, polished and carved. Sad to say that I failed to find any reference to an Aussie button factory during this era, it seems we were a primary resource only. Even button factories situated close to the coast in the USA used shell from either Australia, Japan, New Zealand or the Philippines.

The Production of MOP's
Once the shell was collected the production of buttons fell into 3 stages, soaking, cutting of blanks and  polishing and carving.
The shell was soaked for at least a week to ensure they wouldn't shatter during the cutting process.

The next stage was to produce the shell blanks. This job was mainly left to men, and involved the cutting of discs into the raw shell using a special lathe. Although the production of button blanks existed in the button factories themselves, it was also a booming cottage industry and many people had button cutting machines in their homes.

This amazing video from the Milton Historical Society recounts memories from a town devoted to the production of MOP blanks.

The blanks were then shipped to factories all over the world that specialised in the polishing, and carving of buttons. England in particular had many, many factories devoted to this skilful art. But there were many around Europe and America. Some of the buttons produced during this time were absolute works of art. Many carved by hand.

The final stages of button production was often a women's affair as many women were employed in the finishing of MOP buttons as well as sewing the buttons onto button cards..

 I think for me researching the extraordinary history of MOP buttons has only heightened my adoration for them. Of course the sheer size of the production in the 50 years of the height of their popularity is mind blowing, but I think also the realisation that so much of their production was by hand and involved entire communities and townships. After the 1940's we saw machinery development and button production shifted into overdrive. These automated machines could produce the same amount of buttons one person would make in an entire week in just one hour.
Vintage MOP's are yet another example of a time where craftsmanship was valued and beauty was cherished... even with something as simple as a button!
Mel xx


Georgiana said...

I love this post, thank you for the info and the lovely photo of your collection, I would definitely be interested to see more photos of pearl buttons, they are so lovely!

Melissa Frank said...

Ahh thank you Georgiana, so pleased you enjoyed my button post. Definitely will be posting more photos of my ever growing MOP collection... xxxx