What makes someone become an activist? What makes an ordinary person take on the establishment and demand fairness and justice? Sometimes a normally quiet person is placed in such an intolerable situation that they have no other choice but to step forward and speak out. Such was the case of Pearl McGill, a young teenager working in the button industry in Muscatine, Iowa in 1911.
Most of us don’t think much about buttons or how they are made today, but prior to the 1930’s and the introduction of plastic, most buttons used in the United States and the rest of the world were made from shell – mussel shells to be exact – mussels dredged from the bottom of the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois rivers.
Because of the size of the mussel beds found there, Muscatine, Iowa became the center for U.S. button making. In the early 1900’s, over 10,000 people were employed in the button industry in the Midwest. In 1916 alone, over 20 million buttons were sold to market.
But the hazards of this work were many. First, there was the shell dust. In the process of turning a mussel shell into buttons; cutting, drilling, grinding and smoothing actions generated clouds of ultra fine dust - dust that worked its way into the lungs of everyone working in the factories. Tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments – many debilitating or fatal – were common among workers. Some factories covered their floors with sawdust to trap the dust that finally settled to the ground, but most did not.
Workers also worked around soaking vats where the shells spent several days in baths of concentrated sulfuric and hydrochloric acid. This solution was used to treat and soften the shells so they could be worked with and polished. Ventilation in such areas was almost unheard of. More cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene were reported among the button makers workforce than any other working group.
Finally, there was the simple physical hardship of the work. Workers put in an average of 60 to 72 hours per week to earn their $5.00 salary if they were female, $7.00 to $8.00 if they were male. And we’re not just talking about adults here! Families would get so deep into debt to the “company store” set up the owners had that their children were required to work to pay off the debt – for no wages at all - essentially slave labor. It was not uncommon for children as young as 8 years old to work full 60 hour weeks carrying buckets of shells, button blanks and spent acids!
Dealing with the sharp shells and equipment resulted in many instances of hand and eye injuries among workers. One common “joke” around town was, “How high can a button maker count? Answer: Eight – that’s all the fingers he has.” It also wasn’t uncommon when a new employee entered the factory for the older workers to start a pool betting on how many days (not weeks) would go by before the “newbie” lost part of a digit.
It was into this world that 16 year old Pearl McGill entered in July of 1910. A young girl from Grandview, Iowa, she dreamed of some day becoming a school teacher, but first she had to earn enough money to pay for her schooling. An uncle, himself in the button business, arranged for her a job at one of the better regarded factories in Muscatine. Ironically, she was recruited to listen and spy on the workers in the factory and report any “union talk” immediately to the owner.
Unfortunately for the factory owner and her uncle, Pearl’s eyes were quickly opened to the dismal working conditions in the factory. She also personally experienced the brutality of the Pinkerton men (Pinks) hired by the owners to break up any unionizing activity and the even more vicious attacks of the Sluggers; stockyard workers from St. Louis and Chicago brought in when the Pinks were no longer considered tough enough to do the job. Her roomate, with whom she was close friends with, was beaten so severely at a rally that she never fully recovered and died just a few months later.
An angry, outraged Pearl swiftly switched sides. Because of her natural writing and speaking skills, she was drafted by the organizing committee of the Button Workers Protective Union (BWPU) to aid in their struggle to form a union. Eventually, at the age of 16, she became the recording secretary of the committee.
With the help of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Women's Trade Union Leauge (WTUL) who led fundraising efforts nation wide to support the button factory workers, the group won their fight for a unionized workforce, enduring a major lockout and the infamous Button War of Muscatine in 1911.
The union won significant gains in safety, sanitary conditions in the factories, discussions of what would constitute a “fair means” of determining wages and the creation of a structure for sharing workers’ concerns with the owners.
Because of her work, Pearl was recruited by the WTUL in 1912. They brought her to Chicago, trained her in public speaking and introduced her to political theory. She worked as a fundraiser for the union and became very popular as a speaker for unionism and workers’ rights all around the country. She ended up in the middle of the Lawrence Textile Workers' Strike in 1912 where she worked with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
With the IWW, Pearl was taken under the wing of one of its most prominent members, Helen Keller, with whom she developed a good friendship. In fact, a few years later it was Keller who gave Pearl the money to change careers and once again pursue her goal of becoming a school teacher after she became so “infamous” as a union activist that she was essentially blackballed from being hired at any factory.
Pearl taught briefly in the Muscatine area but was brutally murdered in 1924 at the young age of 29. Local authorities blamed her death on her estranged husband. Others such as Jeffrey Copeland, professor and head of the Languages and Literature Dept. at the University of Northern Iowa, believed otherwise:
“I believe, because some of Pearl’s former friends and acquaintances from her days in union activity had recently been murdered . . . Pearl was ‘assassinated’ by those who feared her potential involvement in union activity.”
Pearl McGill didn’t come to Muscatine to be an activist – she just wanted a job, a chance to earn a simple living so she could pursue her teaching degree. But when she saw the terrible things going on in those button factories and the dreadful quality of life the workers endured, she stepped up, she spoke out and then she acted to make a difference . . . will you?
NOTE: More information on Pearl McGill and the button industry can be found in: “Shell Games: the Life and Times of Pearl McGill, Industrial Spy and Pioneer Labor Activist”, by Jeffrey S. Copeland. Paragon House, 2012.
 “Historical Exposures to Mother of Pearl the Industrial Experience in North America and Europe:
A Cautionary Public Health Tale”; Gregory J. Harvey USAF AFMC ASC/ENVR, 1801 10th St Bldg 8 Suite 200, WPAFB, OH 45433
 “Shell Games: the Life and Times of Pearl McGill, Industrial Spy and Pioneer Labor Activist”, by Jeffrey S. Copeland. Paragon House, 2012.
 Rousmaniere, Kate. “The Short, Radical Life of Pearl McGill.” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas Volume 6 Issue 3 (2009) 9-19.
 The Hole Truth by Mike Ferguson, The Muscatine Journal. 4/11/2012. http://muscatinejournal.com/news/local/the-hole-truth/article_8bfaf60a-844d-11e1-8882-001a4bcf887a.html#ixzz1vpLPcwYB