May 22, 2014

Buttons From Mussel Shells Along the Mississippi

One of Warsaw, Illinois oldest buildings stands at the foot of the hill on Water Street. This building was built in 1866 and has housed different types of manufacturer. It has been a battery company, a shoe factory, and a woolen factory. This building now stands empty on the bank of the Ole Mississippi River.

An old postcard of the factory around 1909

This is what the factory looks like today

The building was constructed in 1866

My mother-in-laws horse farm was just down the road from this factory, when the children were little we would walk down the road and explore the front area of the building. Looking back, it wasn't a very wise or safe thing to do.

The reason we would walk down there was because on the sides of the building shells with holes were scattered about. You see at some point they made buttons at this factory.

A German man who was skilled at making buttons from animal bones, hooves, and shells came to the United States heard about the mussels in the Mississippi River and thought he could make his fortune by producing buttons from these shells with the pearl like coating.

Fragments of shells that were used to make buttons.

Here is an excerpt from the Pearl Button Story on how button were made, 1891 . . .
"The fishers then brought in their catch, and the clams were thrown into big pots of boiling water to kill them. Men and women pried the loosened shells apart and cleaned out the whitish meat.

From the riverbank, wagoners hauled the shells to the factory, where they were soaked in water for about a week. This softened the shells so that they didn't break so easily while being sawed.

The cutters were the highest paid workers in the button factory and were always men. It was a skilled job, because a good cutter got as many button blanks out of each shell as possible. He used a saw that revolved and cut a hole in the shell, the cut-out part being the button blank. These blanks were dropped into a bucket by the cutter, and then carried to a line of workers at grinding machines (usually boys). Here the rough outer side of shell was removed and the blanks ground to an even thickness.

A conveyor belt carried the blanks to the finishing machine. Along the belt a worker turned them all rough side up. At the finishing machine, another worker carved out the center and drilled the holes. Buttons were fed into this machine by hand, one at a time.

To shine them, the buttons were tumbled in a churn with water and powdered pumice for half a day. Finally they were washed, dried in sawdust and moved onto the sorting tables. Women and girls sorted the buttons according to quality, color and luster. Some were hand sewn on cards, and others were placed in boxes for shipping."

Outside of a mussel shell 

The cutter only got four buttons from this shell.

Inside the mussel with its iridescent lining

Eventually, button makers would turn to plastic which was cheaper to produce. The Mississippi River with the mussels living in the muddy river bottom was no longer in demand.

My children brought home so many of these shells when they were young, as the fascination of these shells dwindled their collection of these shells were misplaced and more than likely thrown away. I was lucky to have found one to photograph.



  1. I have always been fascinated by those shell buttons. They are like little jewels. Thanks for sharing this history with us. Linda@Wetcreek Blog

  2. That building looks very much the same as in the post card. I love the shell buttons because of their shine.

  3. What a interesting story, and what a memory from your children's childhood. Love how the building has the year on it. I had to see wonderful old buildings like that.

  4. This is a fascinating post, Paulette. I had no idea how those were made, and yet I have some shell buttons in my button collection. I'm surprised that the building is still standing.

  5. What a neat post! Very interesting. Have a great weekend. Maria

  6. A lovely post- thank you so much x