Before plastic buttons....

Have you ever wondered what buttons were made out of before plastic was invented? I have an answer to that question. Almost all buttons were made out of wood, metal, or the much superior pearl. In 1902 a company was started in Louisiana Missouri that made buttons out of pearl (mother of pearl). “Shell-diggers” would go out onto the Mississippi River and collect mussel shells from the bottom of the river. After cleaning the mussels, the shells were bagged and taken to the Nord-Buffum Button Factory, which used to be located at 125 South Water Street.

As the shells arrived at the factory, the round cutters would cut “blanks” out of the shells. The “blanks” were then hand fed into machines that would shape and drill holes into them, completing one more step in the making of a pearl button. Eventually these buttons were polished and became ready for sale. Pearl buttons were in high demand during the early 1900’s because of their resistance to everyday wear. The buttons would not split, swell, or rust but remain bright and shiny. “At peak production, Nord-Buffum had about 100 employees and produced about 72,000,000 pearl buttons annually. This was in the 1930’s” (“Nord-Buffum Pearl Button Co.”).
Mrs. Charles F. Nord Sr.

With the invention of plastic, the cost of making pearl buttons became too expensive. Competing with the plastic buttons, which were flooding the market in the 50’s, forced the Nord-Buffum factory to start making plastic buttons. In 1960 the switch to plastic became official. The same machinery was used in the production of plastic buttons as the production of pearl buttons, except for three machines that were installed as automatic feeders. The feeders replaced the workers who used to hand feed the machines.

After making the switch to plastic, there was little demand for the mussel shells. In order to keep selling the plentiful supply of mussel shells, Mrs. Nord revived local interest by inventing “nuggets”. Nuggets were shells that had been broken into fragments, dyed, polished, and had a hole drilled in each. Mrs. Nord then would take those nuggets and bag or box them as a do-it-yourself necklace or bracelet kit.

The founders of the factory were P.F. Nord and two brothers Charles and Frank Buffum. “After the retirement of his father, the late C.F. Nord operated the business from 1930 until two weeks before his death in November of 1964” (“Nord-Buffum Pearl Button Co.”).After Mr. Nord’s death, Mrs. Nord Sr. and her son C. F. Nord Jr., of Alton, Illinois, took over the business. In 1968 Mrs. Charles F. Nord Sr. was the only female industrialist in Louisiana and was operating the only button factory left in Missouri at that time.


Works Cited:
"Nord-Buffum Pearl Button Co." Sesquicentennial 1818-1968. Louisiana, Missouri: 1968. Print and Photos.