Mussel Shell Buttons
Posted On: 06/07/2017 - 12:29pm, Posted By: Emily Imhoff, Collections Manager - Zoology
This post is guest-authored by Stanley Hedeen, professor emeritus at Xavier University and long-time volunteer at the Geier Collections & Research Center.
Among the mussel shells in the Cincinnati Museum Center collection are many Ohio River specimens that exhibit numerous circular holes. These holes were created over a century ago at riverside factories that (1) purchased shells from mussel gatherers, (2) punched clothing buttons out of the shells, and (3) disposed of the used shells into the Ohio River.
Mussel shells from which button blanks were obtained.
Close-up view of holes drilled in mussel shell to obtain button blanks.
The initial freshwater shell button factory in the United States was constructed in 1891 on the bank of the Mississippi River in Muscatine, Iowa. The popularity of its products quickly led to the establishment of more shell button manufacturers in many Midwestern towns. Locally, button works were built along the Ohio River in Cincinnati as well as upstream in Manchester, Ohio, and downstream in Madison, Indiana.
Button blanks cut from mussel shells.
Finished shell buttons manufactured from button blanks.
At the start of the twentieth century, the button industry’s demand for shells led to the reduction of mussel populations that could be reached by wading, thereby forcing shell gatherers to use boats to access deeper, uncollected mussel beds in the river. The homemade vessels, usually small flatboats with square ends, pulled hook-bearing metal bars over the deepwater mussel colonies. When a hook came in contact with a mussel lying open on the stream bottom, the animal instinctively protected itself by closing, latching onto the hook and holding tight until raised from the water and removed by the collector.
Harvesting of local mussels declined as mussel populations declined, and harvest ceased during the twentieth century as plastic replaced shell in the production of buttons. However, the plastic buttons on much of our clothing retain the appearance of shell, showing that not all that is fashionable is new.