Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Shells to Buttons

While creating the local Exhibits for the Smithsonian Traveling Show last fall, Nancy King researched the button industry. We borrowed a button making machine from the Mt. Carmel Museum and several display boards of buttons from the Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources.  Another member, and creative artist Wanda Sechrest fashioned one-of-a-kind pins from vintage mussel shell buttons and silver wire for our gift shop.  At the time we could not substantiate exactly where the mussel shells were transported, although we did know that a button making 'factory' existed in St. Francisville.  (See early posts for more about these topics.) Then we found this article in the Vincennes Commercial dated May 3, 1906. 

"The Beulah Ray came in from the north Wednesday with a barge load of mussel shells, which were brought here for shipment, and as soon as the barges are unloaded, the little craft will start upstream again for a second load.

The shells were the property of James. F. Figg, of Muscatine, Iowa, who came here last year to conduct a mussel camp and to buy shells for shipment and who this year has the largest camp on the river, and is engaged in the wholesale digging and purchasing of shells, pearls and slugs.

Mr. Figg’s camp is located at 22 miles above the city, and his force of men is so large that it requires 10 tents to accommodate them with living quarters. (Ed note: Russellville is about 13 miles north)

The barge load brought in Wednesday contained over 100 tons of the shells, which Mr. Figg secured at a price of $10 a ton, and he has purchased more than 125 additional tons between this city and his camp at a similar price, which will be gathered up at once, and brought down in a few days by the Beulah Ray.

The shells will be loaded into cars at this point and shipped to the button factories of Muscatine, Iowa. Mr. Figg is getting a big majority of the shells being gathered along the stretch of the river, but he has been paying the top price for them, having paid out over $2250 for the two barge loads, gathered already this season. 

Mr. Figg is fixed for the business, and it is said that his camp of 10 tents 10 miles above Russellville, is a most interesting place and the scene of much activity.


There is more mussel digging on the Wabash in this section this year than ever before, and the diggers are making good money on their shells, not to speak of the money secured for occasional pearls.

Click here to see some of the button merchandise we sell and the book made by the button industry explaining how buttons are made.