Monday, December 14, 2009

Laurie Doesn't Lie

Laurie is this week's winner with her guess of an oyster shell button!

So, how does one make a button out of shell? I can't say much about shell button-making in the 18th and 19th centuries...I haven't yet looked into the matter...but I have researched 20th-century shell button-making in Delaware.

Delaware, particularly south of Milford, had a 'cottage industry' in shell button-making that started at least in the 1920s and ended around 1990. The image above is one of the small factories that I visited. It had been abandoned for years and all of the machinery and materials remain inside. I also visited a household operation in a nearby barn.

South Sea bivalves (essentially clams) were imported and shipped to locals. They would drill blanks out of the shell in different sizes. Some were finished in those same factories, others were sent to Connecticut for finishing. Workers used hollow bits to drill as many blanks as possible from a shell, minimizing waste while maximizing production. The shell to the right, picked off the top of a "shell midden," is a pretty good example of the skill required of the operator. Button makers probably used a brace and bit to cut blanks prior to the advent of electrical tools, although water and steam driven mills could have supplied the power in the 19th century.

The results of all that button blank cutting were innumerable shell buttons that appear in archaeological deposits throughout the United States and small piles of shell waste around the sites of these former factories. The waste pile pictured to the right is only one of several surrounding this factory.

There is a great deal of research that can be conducted in this area, starting with detailed interviews with former button makers and distributors of materials and equipment. Then we need to document the sites, starting with the most recent, before they are destroyed, and then looking for and excavating those for which archaeological materials are all that survive.

There is a published archaeological study of shell button-making along the Mississippi River. Manufacturers used indigenous freshwater mussels. That publication, however, is not readily available and it does address late historic button making.

Now, here is Anne's choice of mystery artifact for next week.

Above is this week's Mystery Artifact. This stoneware is also sometimes glazed with a rich purple color. Good Luck.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Westerwald! With cobalt blue or magnesium purple glaze!

Val Hall