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Pearl buttons are made from the mother of pearl or shells of the mussels. They were once very popular but no longer practical with our modern washing machines and dryers as they will deteriorate.
However, for the Pearly Kings and Queens of London, pearl buttons still abound in their elaborate costumes.
Fruit and vegetable street vendors in London called costermongers originally used pearl buttons in their "flash boy outfits". Pearl buttons were sewn down the outside leg seams of their pants. The pocket flaps of waistcoats and cap fronts were similarly adorned.
The founder of the Pearly tradition, Henry Croft (1862-1930) left the workhouse orphanage when he was 13 to be a road sweeper and rat catcher. As he admired the costermongers and their suits, he decided to decorate an entire suit, top hat and tails included. With all the attention he got, he began to collect small change to benefit the orphanage he came from and other charities.
Soon, the costermongers rallied around him to help him raise more money. They established a Pearly monarchy. Every London borough, plus the City of London and Westminster, have their own Pearly families - kings, queens, princes and princesses. They still support charities today and are strongly associated with the Church.
The pearl buttons form patterns on their signature costumes and have meanings. Some symbols include horseshoes (luck), heart (charity), wheel (coster's barrow), anchors(hope) and playing card symbols (life is a gamble).
These Cockneys also have a delightful rhyming slang. My favorites are tomfoolery for jewelry, dicky dirt for shirt and trouble and strife for wife! (as in "My trouble and strife always irons my dicky dirts. Maybe I should buy her some tomfoolery!")
In the US, the pearl button industry was centered in Muscatine, Iowa starting from the late 1800's. For years it was known as the "Pearl Button Capital of the World" or "Pearl City". The buttons were made from bountiful freshwater mussel shells collected from the nearby Mississippi river. The pearl button industry peaked in 1916 making $12.5 million worth of buttons that year. There were so many punched out shells, they used them for road fill! All that changed with the introduction of cheap plastic buttons. The local Muscatine button factories still makes buttons but just plastic ones.
Vintage pearl buttons are getting harder to find so treasure any you may find. Perhaps you could also make jewelry out of them. Shown here is Stelma Designs's lovely 1940s Vintage Pearl Button Choker necklace creation.
By the way, the inspiration for this post comes from my childhood nickname - Pearly. Strange how a single syllable name like Pearl actually lengthened!
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