Happiness & Long Life for All its Residents #113

Becky Weiser

Wednesday Mar 8th, 2023

I think I have this blog all buttoned up! I was doing research on some lesser-known Erie manufacturing companies and found that we had some shells and buttons from the Keystone Button Works here in Erie.


The company began in 1894 and was located initially on 16th Street near State Street. A few years later it moved to the northeast corner of 25th and Ash Streets. Below is the site today, but I am unsure if this particular building was used by the button company. Keystone Button Works produced both pearl and ivory buttons.


In 1901, the name was changed to the Keystone Pearl Button Company and relocated to 12th and Walnut Streets. It was no longer in existence when the 1905 Erie City Directory was published. 

Shells used for button production were most likely shipped from coastal areas where oysters were common. The inner lining of the shells has a pearly quality hence the term mother of pearl is used. Eventually, cheap plastic substitutes in a variety of colors took over the market of mother of pearl fasteners.

Image from “The Men Who Make Erie” 1898

The earliest buttons known were created around the year 2000 BCE in what is today known as Pakistan. They were not used to fasten clothing but as decorations, and a sign of wealth and status. Buttonholes were not invented until the mid-13th century. 

Have you ever noticed how men’s and women’s clothing are buttoned differently? I have read that because most people are right-handed, men’s buttons are on the right so they can dress themselves. Women of status who could afford more buttons dressed with the help of a maid, so buttons are on the left side for their convenience.

We have an extensive collection of buttons here at the Hagen History Center. Shoes alone used many buttons, as the photos below show.

Child’s pair of shoes from 1890.
Women’s boots from 1911.

Small buttons made fastening shoes and boots very difficult until the invention of the buttonhook. We have several hooks advertising local businesses. This one is from A.M. Litz Shoe Repair which was located at 112 Center Street in Corry, Pennsylvania. Well, that hook is as “cute as a button.”


We also have a variety of political buttons that were not used for fastening but advertising. The first political button was an American invention and appeared to promote George Washington. The following is a more contemporary example that some readers may recognize.


No need to hit the panic button, we are not talking politics here. 

When most of us think about manufacturing in Erie, we may think about GE, Erie City Iron Works, American Meter, and other large companies. We had many small manufacturers here as well, ones that may be long forgotten. Now, every time I button a blouse or dress, I will remember the Keystone Button Works and imagine that the button I am using was made by them. That makes me happy.