How Shell Buttons Were Once Made

Have you ever wondered how beautiful shell buttons were once made?  To be perfectly honest, I hadn't really ever thought about it before.  However, I was wandering around a small but extremely interesting museum over the weekend and stumbled on this fascinating contraption:

This is how real mother of pearl buttons were made prior to being made in high-tech modern factories.  Made in smaller batches, the shells themselves had to be soaked in water for at least a week, then were cut into "blanks."  Button holes were added later.

In the photo above, you can see the variety of shells used and how they were cut.  Button makers used every last bit of the precious shell they could, getting as many button blanks out of each shell possible.  Here are some button blanks on a work table (love that worn wooden surface):

Here are some of the various tools used too:

It is my understanding from the information I read at the museum that this machine was primarily used at a local button factory in the early to mid twentieth century. Buttons were in high demand during the Depression Era and the hand-cut shell button industry dwindled when bigger machines were invented and plastic buttons became more refined and mass produced.

A fascinating piece of history for all button lovers!


  1. That's very interesting!! Much more complex than I would have thought! Makes those buttons even more precious.

    1. I thought so too! When I got home I dug through my antique shell buttons to give them a closer look...fascinating!

  2. Fascinating! Thanks for showing us xx

  3. thanks for showing the process. I have some vintage shell buttons and have wondered how they were made.


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