Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Buttons : Mother of Pearl

(from my own collection)


There were quite some old-fashioned white mother of pearl shirt buttons in my grandma's button box; they always fascinate me. They have a nice cold solid touch, a beautiful shiny and iridescent appearance and often a very interesting rough backside, they are all different and they are heavier than plastic buttons. I learned that there are actually two types of mother of pearl buttons; those made from freshwater mussel shells and those made from ocean shells, with the latter having more brilliance. Round blanks are cut from the washed shells, polished and drilled.


Button fabrication (from Stephanie Hackstein. Buttons. History and Production)

Freshwater mother of pearl buttons were made from 1892 to the 1960s along the Mississippi River in the USA. Because at the end of the 19th century, the ocean shell buttons were very popular but expensive, a German immigrant button maker started to create buttons from the freshwater shells. It was a great success; a huge clam button industry was the result. Almost every man, woman and child along the Mississippi River was working somewhere in the button industry, families camped along the shores, catching, cleaning, drilling, polishing, carding, etc. It is said that the smell was really aweful in those areas. Finally they could not compete anymore with the cheaper and more durable plastic buttons, and the freshwater mother of pearl button industry died out.

(from Iowa Pathways; The Pearl Button Story)

Beautiful ocean mother of pearl buttons were made in the 18th and 19th century, often carved, engraphed, dyed, embellished with jewels etc. They were made in France, Germany and the UK, but the shells came from the Philippines, Japan, Australia, Panama, Egypt, etc. Those first two countries are still today's main ocean shell button suppliers.

(from The Keep Homestead Museum, Monson MA)

The most expensive shell is the white macassar from the East Indies, and the most pupular ones are probably the abalone with its striking colours and the smoked black Tahiti shell, but buttons were also made from cowries, helmet shells, pinna shells and conches.

(1. abalone from annkelliott on flickr, 2 white macassar from Miyoshi, 3 pinna from wildsingapore, 4 helmet from c70iang on flickr, 5 black Tahiti from Southern Paua Ltd., 6 tiger cowrie from pieceoflace on Flickr, 7 conch from Debi123 on Flickr, and 8. yellow sand shell from Freshwater Mussels of the Upper Mississippi River System; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)


Based on:
Marilyn V. Green. The Button Lover's Book (Creative Machine Arts Series). Chilton Book Co, 1991. ISBN 978-0801980107
Muscatine Pearl Button Museum
Stephanie Hackstein. Buttons. History and Production. Markstein Verlag, Filderstadt 2007. ISBN 978-3-935129-40-4
The Keep Homestead Museum, Monson, MA

13 comments:

Star of the East said...

Again a wonderful history about buttons, love the pics of the shells!

Jane_Bo said...

Thank you for sharing - very beautiful buttons ans shells and interesting history!

Huismus said...

Excellent post!! Sooo, how much would that lot of buttons be from the museum? ;-)
Great story, thanks!!!

ingermaaike said...

I love these history lessons! Keep em coming :-D

Ravenhill said...

Mother of pearl buttons are my absolute favorites! Such beautiful photos of them!

ArtMind said...

Wow, what an interesting post! I love the mother of pearl buttons! I had no idea they were cut out of the shells like shown in the first picture! Thanks for sharing - I learned something! :)

fleurfatale said...

ooh, I love your posts about buttons, so interesting (as I am a button freak too), thanks so much for all the search you did to share this with us!!!!!

Dawn said...

Just the kind of read I love--so informative, beautiful pics! Thank you!

Kreativlink said...

Another great post Petronella!

Dina Fragola said...

I love thoses buttons!

Nicole said...

As always, I really like your historical stories. It really puts life into items that I did not see much life in before.

Veerle said...

What a great post! I love mother of pearl, and am very happy of what I could learn from you today!!
Thanks a lot!

feyzadem said...

Exellent post Petronella , i did nt read before :)
Thanks !