Shell button-making in the United States began in northeastern industrial cities like New York in the late 19th century, using ocean shell imported from Australia and the south Pacific. A German immigrant brought the industry from Austria to the American Midwest after recognizing the potential of the freshwater mussel beds of the Mississippi River as a resource for shell button-making. The industry flourished for several years but suffered from labor strikes and depletion of the local mussel population. In the early 1930s entrepreneurs established shell button factories in rural portions of eastern Maryland and Delaware (Delmarva), again using imported ocean shell when the local species proved unsuitable for shell button-making. Shells of bivalves and gastropods from around the world became part of the Delmarva economy and later the ecosystem, as shell dust and other waste products were used to pave roads and increase the fertility of agricultural soil. Surviving shop sites and machinery, recovered shell waste, oral testimony, and census, legislative, land title, and other data document the rise and fall of Delmarva’s shell button-making industry between the early 1930s and 1990s.
Biuk, Siara L.
"Shell Button-Making on the Delmarva Peninsula, ca. 1930s-1990s,"
Northeast Historical Archaeology:
47, Article 3.
Available at: https://orb.binghamton.edu/neha/vol47/iss1/3