Shell Buttons

Shell buttons are featured at the Keep Homestead Museum. There are antique, vintage, and modern buttons made from shells from various parts of the world. Since there are so many of these shell buttons in Myra’s collection, they are rotated on a regular basis to give viewers the opportunity to see as many different types as possible during the year.

Of special note in the Jerusalem Pearls are two buttons that have abalone inlaid on the face of each button. The shells used to produce these very beautiful buttons are imported to the Holy Land for the artists to carve. Many of these buttons were exported to the United States in the 1950s, and were very popular with button collectors. They are still being carved today in the Holy Land. The earlier buttons are usually more intricate in design and are very desirable when found by collectors.

Also featured are some of the 19th century mother of pearl buttons from Myra’s collection. They are displayed with other paraphernalia from the waters of the world. There are several examples of button studs, shell jewelry, and a snuff box with inlaid mother of pearl. Centrally located is a shell with button patterns already cut and ready to be stamped out. There are examples of these blanks to show what they looked like before the buttons were carved into useable buttons. At one time this was all done by hand, but eventually machines were invented to take care of this fussy aspect of making these mother of pearl buttons.

Buttons made from shells began early in the 19th century in England and eventually progressed to the United States after the end of the Civil War. This industry was slow to catch on, but by the turn of the century in 1900 many of these buttons were being produced in the United States. There were literally hundreds of small button factories located along the banks of the Mississippi River. These buttons were made from shells harvested from the river itself. A Mississippi River shell is on display in this exhibit at the Keep and has a very lovely pearlescence to its interior.

There are several cards of vintage shell buttons. The beautiful dyed and etched buttons, as well as the watch wheel buttons and lovely large carved buttons, are a tribute to the industry and shows us why they were so popular. There are, of course, examples of more modern mother of pearl buttons as well. There is one card just devoted to abalone shaped into fish. There is another card of realistic mother of pearl buttons made by a nearby button factory. In Monson, we are fortunate to have had a button factory right next door to us in Staffordville, Connecticut. You can still visit the old site of the now-closed factory and walk on Button Lane. You may even be fortunate to walk on top of used up shells. If you wish to examine some of the button making items from this factory, visit the Stafford Springs Historical Society. Included in their exhibit are pictures taken inside of the button factory. When most non-collectors think of pearl buttons, they immediately call to mind the buttons that were on their ancestors’ shirts. Today, buttons made from plastic have replaced these mother of pearl buttons. As you examine some of the pictures posted with this article, I think you will agree that mother of pearl buttons can indeed be very decorative as well as utilitarian.

Written by Jacquie M. Hatton, June 2001

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