DELMARVA ALMANAC

Shore-Made Pearl Buttons

by Dana Kester-McCabe

With all the oysters being harvested along Delmarva's shores it is not surprising to learn that businesses developed which could make use of the remnant shells.

That's because until recent generations, people would never think of throwing anything away without using every single part of it they possibly could. Some were used as construction materials in the form of tabby, a type of concrete made from burnt and crushed oyster shells. They have also been used here as land fill. With the success of the oyster harvesting business, it is sometimes said that Crisfield was literally built on top of oyster shells. And at one time Delmarva oyster shells were found in fashions near and far as buttons.

Mother of pearl, or nacre, the iridescent inner coating of mollusk shells has been used as decoration and to make small utensils throughout history. Because of its strength and attractive sheen, during the late 18th and early 19th century mother of pearl buttons became commonly used for men and women's clothing and shoes. After 1890, pearl buttons represented half the total production of all buttons made. In the United States button production tripled by 1914. It is interesting that the popularity of mother of pearl buttons rose along with the seafood industry.

Button making was one of those cottage industries that flourished here on Delmarva. There were a number of factories in towns across the peninsula. People could either work at those plants, or if they had their own equipment they could work at home when they were off duty from their day jobs. They were paid by the pound. A skilled cutter could produce anywhere from 100 to 300 pounds a week.

Blank button disks were stamped out of shells. Chemical baths were used to treat and tint them. Some factories completed the process drilling the holes. Others would simply turn out the disks and ship them to other factories to finish making them into buttons and sequins.

The last family owned button factory in the country was the Martinek plant on Elliot Island in Dorchester County, Maryland. The Martineks moved here from New Jersey in the 1950's. Their equipment and related memorabilia was donated to the Vienna Heritage Museum after they closed in 1999. At the height of their success Elvis Presley and the Barbie doll had costumes made with Martinek sequins.

Milton, Delaware became a center for button making particularly during the Great Depression when the shipbuilding industry was on the decline. More and more people seemed to need buttons. They could not afford new clothes and would replace broken or missing buttons rather than discard a garment. At one time as many as eight button making shops existed in Milton. An untold number of individual families were cranking out button blanks at their homes.

The most famous of the bigger Milton operations were the Lippincott Factory and Excelsior Pearl Button Works. Lippincott's was the largest, employing between 100-120 workers. The Milton buttons however were not made from oysters, but from abalone shells imported from the South Pacific.

By the late 1950s, the American-made pearl button industry began to decline. This was in large part due to the influx of cheaper plastic buttons produced in Asia. And as fashions changed buttons became larger and flashier. By the sixties the mother of pearl buttons could not compete with large psychedelically colored buttons that were all the rage. So Delmarva button cutting shops eventually all closed up.

Oyster shells are still used in few places to make tabby or as clandestine land fill along the coastline by renegade landowners trying to skirt environmental law and build up the size of their property. You can visit still local historical museums like the ones in Vienna and Milton to see how the buttons used to be made. If you live in Milton when digging in your yard, you may find a cache of glimmering mother of pearl shells left over from some home button cutting operation.

When I was a little girl many of the white button down shirts my family and I owned had mother of pearl buttons. They actually have never really gone completely out of fashion, particularly for wedding gowns and men's formal attire. Now they are collected by aficionados of vintage clothing. People use them to make jewelry and all manner of decorative chotchkies. On Etsy.com the online shopping site that specializes in handmade crafts a simple search of mother of pearl buttons brings up over 7,000 results.

I am sure there are many seamstresses and crafters here on Delmarva today that make use of real mother of pearl buttons. But they don't come from here. That's kind of a shame because it's not like we have shortage of oyster shells - just yet.

If you would like to learn more about Delmarva's button making history visit the Milton Historical Society and the Vienna Heritage Museum.

References:


Milton Historical Society

Vienna Heritage Museum

Maryland Curiosities: Quirky characters, roadside oddities & other offbeat stuff
by Alison Blake
Morris Book Publishing LLC - 2009

Delaware Public Archives

Maryland's Vanishing Lives
by John Sherwood
John's Hopkins University Press - Baltimore, Maryland 1994