The Muscatine pearl button industry got its start almost by mistake in 1890. John F. Boepple, a German immigrant, cut his foot on a clam shell while swimming in the Mississippi River. Rather than cry about his bad luck, Boepple gathered a handful of shells and took them home, where he cut them into buttons. A local merchant bought them for ten cents, and a new industry got its start.
Twenty years later, Muscatine found itself home to at least forty-three pearl button factories and cutteries. By 1910, the industry dominated the local economy. Over one-half of the city’s 3,500 wage earners labored as button workers.[i] Muscatine buttons accounted for 15 percent of the nation's button supply, and salaries from the industry contributed over one and a half million dollars a year to the local economy. An expert consulted by the Des Moines Register said the average worker earned $12 per week.[ii] But unionists claimed most workers made half that amount.
Pauline Lang, a Muscatine button worker, explained to the San Francisco Labor Council, “the men were receiving but from $6 to $7 per week, many of them toiling in water to their knees. The women and children received as low as $3 a week for toiling in rooms where the dust was so thick that many of them contracted blood poison and consumption.”[iii]
It was a dangerous, dirty job, worked by men, women, and children as young as fourteen. A typical workweek could run anywhere between 54 to 72 hours.
Button making was a low-tech, hands-on industry that an average worker could learn in a few days. First, someone had to rake, net, and collect the clams from the riverbed, then they needed to be boiled, and all the meat scraped out. After that, the shells needed to be polished, dried, and the buttonholes cut. When that was done, hundreds of women and children worked in factories and homes, threading buttons onto cards, getting them ready for retail stores.
Men got paid by the hour or the week, but like in so many jobs, women received a piece rate. The more work they did, the more pay they received.[iv]
One group of women claimed the manager of the factory they worked at had a resting room. If the women didn’t sleep with him, they could end up out on the street.[v] Women at other factories chimed in, saying they were subject to the same sexual abuse. If they didn’t play along, their managers threatened to find some other women who would.
In November 1910, local button workers organized as the Muscatine Button Workers Protective Union. In a few short months, the union grew from ten to more than 2,500 members.
On February 25, 1911, the manufacturers banded together and shut down all 43 factories and cutteries. Managers said the layoff was a matter of economics. The button supply was up and sales down, partly because of the shirtwaist strike in New York the previous year. The 2,500 laid-off workers claimed management shut the button factories down because of their efforts to unionize.
Within a week, nearly 1,000 union members organized picket lines outside of the closed factories. A month later, the factories reopened and agreed to hire back all the laid-off employees at the same wage and status as before the shutdown.
A few of the laid-off employees returned to their jobs, but most button workers continued to boycott the manufacturers for another year.
Things got out of hand quickly.
On April 1, five men pelted Mayor W. S. Hill with rotten eggs as he got off the streetcar at Park Avenue and Second Street. A few days later, unionists tossed acid bombs into the homes of three scab workers. The explosives produced loud explosions and left a horrible stench lingering in the houses.
Things got so bad in mid-April that the mayor called in the National Guard to help maintain order and escort non-striking workers to and from their workplaces. The funny thing was, nearly a quarter of the militia members consisted of striking button workers.[vi]
In October, as the button factories tried to lure more employees back to the job, Sheriff Vannatta beefed up the city police force to the highest level ever seen. He had 75 men on the payroll, and more in waiting. At least 25 came from detective agencies in Chicago and St. Louis. The sheriff stationed the out of town men at the McKee and Bliven factories[vii]
The next month Judge William Theophilus brought the practice of importing deputies to a screeching halt. He ruled that out of town deputies “were not entitled to pay for their services.”[viii]
November turned into a crazy month for strikers and city officials alike. Strikers Ed Peterson and John Flynn attacked the chief of police with an iron bar. John Alph got a five-year sentence for tarring a non-union worker’s home. Reverend John Hafer, the pastor at the German Lutheran Church, received a letter from someone who threatened to dynamite the church unless the Ladies’ Aid Society stopped sewing buttons on cards for the manufacturers.[ix]
And things didn’t get any better in December.
Strikers broke into non-union worker Ernst Schauland’s home and smeared manure all over the walls and chopped up the furniture.[x] A few days before that, John Richley, a striking button worker, took a beating from Special Officer David Settlemire after he insulted him for being a non-Union man.[xi]
The strike took a turn for the worse on November 25 when one of the strikers killed Patrolman Theodore Gerischer. Gerischer was a giant of a man who stood six feet 7 in his stocking feet and was all muscle. He played basketball on the Company C Basketball team and was one of the best-liked policemen in Muscatine.
Patrolman Gerischer approached a group of five drunken men he discovered singing and dancing in the street. He quickly focused his attention on the drunkest and most abusive man in the group. When Gerischer attempted to arrest him, the man ran away. The officer hollered for him to stop, then fired a shot into the air. The man came back, saying, “Don’t shoot. I give up.” Then he raised his arm and shot Gerischer in the face.
The other four men Claude Williamson, Ed Healey, Leo Geltz, and Joe Clark, quickly identified the killer as Thomas Hoskinson.[xii]
The police apprehended Hoskinson in Rock Island, Illinois, on November 27.[xiii]
Police transported him to Muscatine on the Rock Island train. They had the engineer stop the train and dim the light a mile outside of Muscatine. Then twenty policemen escorted the prisoner to the Muscatine Jail. They were afraid vigilantes would grab Hoskinson and string him up if they came across the mob gathered at the station.
It turned out, Hoskinson was the worst type of unionist. He was young, just 23, and reputed to be a “rabid socialist, imbued with radical ideas of the cult.” Rock Island police caught him carrying a .38 caliber revolver, a membership card to the socialistic local in Muscatine, and a membership card for the Button Cutters’ Union.
A week before he shot Patrolman Gerischer, neighbors overheard Hoskinson boasting about “what he would do if he ever got a chance at a policeman.”[xiv]
Hoskinson refused to talk, but it didn’t make any difference. The four men with him that night told the entire story. The county attorney treated them as witnesses, not accessories to the crime.
They said as Gerischer walked forward to arrest him, Hoskinson raised his hand and fired point-blank into the patrolman’s face, “smashing it into a jelly.”[xv]
Hoskinson tried to appear unconcerned at the preliminary trial. He played with a lead pencil, scribbled pictures on a pad of paper, and stared insolently at the witnesses brought against him.
Edward and William Healy said when Gerischer tried to arrest Hoskinson, he started to walk away. When the officer fired his gun into the air, they all fell to the ground. They saw the flash of a gun, then watched Gerischer collapse, but it was too dark outside to see who fired the gun.[xvi]
At the trial on December 26, Hoskinson confessed to the killing.
“I don’t know why I killed Gerischer. I had been drinking.
“I saw the officer approaching me, and I knew that if arrested with a revolver on my person, it would go hard on me. I started to run. I could hear his footsteps overtaking me. I passed the tree with the revolver in my hand and then wheeled about. I fired into his face, and he dropped like a log.”[xvii]
Judge Horan sentenced Hoskinson to life imprisonment at hard labor in the Fort Madison prison.[xviii]
After Gerischer’s death, the strike turned into a knockdown drag-out war. “The police took no chances after the cowardly murder of one of their members,” wrote the reporter for The Davenport Democrat, “and sailed in right and left, leaving many a cracked head and sore body in their wake.”[xix]
The most serious action took place at the McKee Factory. Twenty policemen charged fifty strikers dug in midway up Third Street Hill. A group of deputies snuck up behind the workers and pushed them forward, leaving only two choices. They could move straight forward into the police, or into a barbed-wire fence.
After the authorities cleared the area, Sheriff Vannatta issued an order that forbade picketers to assemble near the factories.
The unrest continued into 1912. Eventually, the factories gave in and signed union contracts, and the button workers returned to their jobs. The Muscatine Button Company signed a union contract on December 11 and put fifty former employees back on the job. The Mule Barn signed the union agreement on December 12 and hired 46 union men. Over time, more companies accepted the union terms and things returned to normal, or as normal as they could be after 15 months of strife.[xx]
[i] Rousmanlere, Kate. “The Muscatine Button Workers’ Strike of 1911-12.” Annals of Iowa. Spring 1982. P. 247.
[ii] The Des Moines Register. April 27, 1911.
[iii] Muscatine News-Tribune. November 16, 1911.
[iv] Hurd, Frances Schreurs. “The Pearl Button Industry of Muscatine, Iowa.” The Annals of Iowa. Fall 1966. P. 401-411.
[v] Rousmanlere, Kate. “The Muscatine Button Workers’ Strike of 1911-12.” Annals of Iowa. Spring 1982. P. 255.
[vi] The Des Moines Register. April 11, 1915.
[vii] The Muscatine Journal. October 3, 1911.
[viii] The Davenport Democrat. November 9, 1911.
[ix] The Des Moines Register. December 11, 1911.
[x] The Davenport Democrat. December 13, 1911.
[xi] The Davenport Democrat. December 8, 1911.
[xii] The Davenport Democrat. November 27, 1911.
[xiii] The Davenport Democrat. November 27, 1911.
[xiv] The Davenport Democrat. November 27, 1911.
[xv] The Davenport Democrat. December 27, 1911.
[xvi] The Davenport Democrat. November 29, 1911.
[xvii] The Davenport Democrat. December 15, 1911.
[xviii] The Davenport Democrat. December 27, 1911.
[xix] The Davenport Democrat. November 28, 1911.
[xx] The Davenport Democrat. December 12, 1911.