Shells tell the story of long-gone button industry

Dozens of cone top shells from a closed factory in Denton, Maryland.
Dozens of cone top shells from a closed factory in Denton, Maryland, wait to be measured and cataloged at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. For decades, their inner iridescent coating, called nacre, was valued for mother-of-pearl buttons. (Marisa Sloan/MEDILL)

By Marisa Sloan
Medill Reports

EDGEWATER, Md. — The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Environmental Archaeology Laboratory is easy to miss, hidden within a basement on the sprawling 2,650-acre campus. Those who manage to find it can expect to be greeted by an eclectic spread: microscopes, coffee mugs, miniature dinosaurs and shelves full of both books and animal bones.

“By the way, you don’t have any cell service here,” warned Linda Perkins, who has worked at the lab as a citizen scientist for five years. “If you need to make a call, I can show you how to get out the back door.”

When I arrived, Perkins was sifting through trays of broken cone top shells excavated from the waste piles of a button factory in the small community of Denton, Maryland. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, mother-of-pearl buttons — cut out of shells left behind by sea snails and treated in chemical baths — were popular for their strength and attractive sheen. The Denton factory, called simply “the button factory” by residents, was constructed in 1933 and transformed shells into buttons until its closure in 1996.

“But it’s not the age that matters for us,” said archaeologist Jim Gibb, head of the lab. “It’s the process, different gender roles, involved labor relations and rural electrification. [There are] all kinds of different themes in American history that crosscut on these things.”

Environmental archaeologists study how humans changed ecosystems in the past and adapted to those changes. Sometimes, lessons learned in the past provide valuable insight for present day issues, such as those associated with climate change. At SERC, Gibb and his team of citizen scientists are interested in uncovering how the button industry impacted the local ecosystem and shaped the lives of the community that hosted it.

Cardboard boxes filled with artifacts.
Hundreds of cardboard boxes, filled with artifacts ranging from tobacco pipes and plastic to bullets and bottles, lie in a storage room down the hall from the Environmental Archaeology Laboratory. (Marisa Sloan/MEDILL)

Surviving factory machinery provides clues to the button-making process. Workers first soaked shells to soften them and remove the smell of the sea, then drilled button-shaped “blanks” from the undersides using a lathe fitted with a tubular saw. Various other machines then sanded the ends of each finished blank to silky smoothness, sorted them by size and sliced them into uniform thickness.

“They hold the shell in one hand and advance this high-speed, tubular saw that drills a hole, [then] they retract it,” Gibb said. “There’s a mechanism that pops the blank out, and they go on to the next.”

After rummaging through some drawers, he located an old tubular saw — a hollow, metal tube approximately the length of a pinky finger and as wide as a typical button. The circular ends are cut into intricate zigzags that are surprisingly sharp, even decades after use.

Workers discarded trimmings of the process in the yard near the factory’s buildings, sometimes even using them to pave Denton’s parking lots and alleys or increase the fertility of agricultural soil. During their research, SERC scientists recovered shells imported from around the world: black abalone from the eastern Pacific Ocean, yellow sandshell from the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, pearl oyster and cone top shell from the south Pacific, and toothed top shell from the Indian Ocean.

The findings hint at a local species unsuitable for button-making, complicating the question of shell sourcing and the role of the Denton community in the worldwide manufacturing network of the time.

Citizen scientist Linda Perkins uses a digital caliper to measure the diameter of each cone top shell.
Citizen scientist Linda Perkins uses a digital caliper — or, as she calls it with a shrug, a “measurer” — to measure the diameter of each cone top shell as well as the heights of their whorls. These shells possess only three or four whorls, but untouched shells have as many as six. (Marisa Sloan/MEDILL)

The introduction of cheaper, plastic buttons drove most mother-of-pearl button shops out of business in the 1950s, and the popularity of bigger, brighter colored buttons in the psychedelic 1960s was the metaphorical nail in the coffin. Only a select few shops were able to adapt by occupying a niche role within the industry.

“The last shop owner in Maryland was doing specialty work with Barbie dolls and sequined performance costumes for Elvis Presley,” Gibb said, referring to the Martinek plant on Elliott Island that closed in the 1990s.

If you want to follow in the fashionable footsteps of Barbie and the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” look no further than Etsy, a popular online marketplace that specializes in handmade and vintage items. A simple search for mother-of-pearl buttons brings up over 9,000 results.

Marisa Sloan is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @sloan_marisa.

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