Pearl Button Business Recalled by Fragments Found at Yaphank

Pearl Button Business Recalled By Fragments Found at Yaphank

By Helen M. Ewing

Middle Island Mail
September 9, 1936



            Along the South Shore we are accustomed to see oyster shells broken up and used in road-beds or driveways.  But a mound of white shell particles piled against a building on Horse Block Road, east of the road from Bellport railroad station to Coram, recently attracted our attention.  Inquiry disclosed the fact that the fragments were mother-of-pearl shell which had come from the bottom of the ocean in the vicinity of Australia.Truly they were a long way from home and our curiosity led us to make further inquiry with the following result:

The story goes back before the Civil War when Silas Lawless, father of Joseph, Albert, and Thomas Lawless of Yaphank and Brookhaven, had a factory in New York, on the corner of White and Center streets in the Harlem and New Haven freight depot.  This was the first company to make pearl goods in this country and for a time the company manufactured three-quarters of all the pearl goods in the whole country.  Mother-of-pearl, from pearl oysters, was extensively used then in furniture inlays, pistol handles, pocket and table knife handles, opera glasses and fan handles.  The heavier parts of the shells were used for the making of buttons.  Buttons, which we now take for granted, have only been in use about 100 years.  (Previous to that time, thorns or wooden pegs were used and later metal pins.)  The first buttons were of metal, ivory and horn, and pearl buttons were quite an innovation when the Lawless Company started in business.

As the best shells for the making of pearl goods were the Sydney shells, found off Thursday Island in the Torrid Straits of Australia, one of the sons, Albert, went to Australia and formed a partnership with Mr. Cleveland who lived in Sydney.  They purchased and operated ten luggers, from which divers would descend 10 to 25 fathoms beneath the surface and collect the pearl oysters from the ocean bottom.  These oysters were sometimes as large as 18 to 20 inches across and when the shell is open, in order to catch food, the oyster is somewhat luminous and can easily be seen by the diver.  (Incidentally, the tentacles of the oyster throw out about 99% of all that floats within the shell and it is when a grain of sand or foreign matter gets below the point where the oyster is fastened to the shell and the oyster cannot eject it, that a pearl is formed.  In order to relieve the irritation caused by the foreign matter, the oyster coats the object with saliva, or the same matter of which the inside of its shell is formed, and this becomes the pearl or gem.  Pearl fisheries depend more on the mother-of-pearl for their revenue then on the pearls as there is not enough of the latter found to pay for the labor of collecting the mollusks.)

The divers are mostly Malays or Japanese and they work six or eight months a year. At ten fathoms, they can stay down an hour.  At 20 to 25 fathoms, it is impossible to stay down more than 5 or 6 minutes.  Those who follow this occupation are mostly fatalists, for of course there is often danger that they might stay under water too long a time.

            The luggers sailed into the port of Sydney and during the voyage, the shells were opened, the meat thrown to one side to be examined for pearls, and the shells packed in hogsheads.  At Sydney they were loaded on steamers which carried them to London and then trans-shipped to New York.  The Lawless family sold out the Australian end of the business after a few years, but continued to manufacture in New York.

In the early days of the pearl button business, a workman would put a blank in a lathe, much the same as wood turning.  The tools were crude and three or four gross a day was a good output.  (Perhaps this is why “making buttons” used to be synonymous with taking one’s time, for it was a long and tedious process to make them by hand.)  A workman received $2.00 a day for plain buttons and consequently they were quite expensive.  Later, machines were invented and Joseph Lawless was the first to develop a machine which would form the pattern of a button without any handy work.  The industry developed rapidly in this country (hitherto it had been carried on in Germany, Austria, France and England) and three or four hundred thousand people were employed in it.  With the new methods and machinery, a girl could turn 300 gross in six hours and would earn $3, $4 and $5 a week.  What would cost 50 cents to manufacture 50 years ago, can now be done for one cent.  American methods have brought about the change, and the consequent reduction in price.

About 45 years ago the Lawless company though they could manufacture under less expense and without labor trouble if they built a factory on some of their land on Long Island of which they owned many acres.  A factory northeast of the present Bellport railroad station was the result, but it had since been torn down.  The expense of getting the raw materials out here and delivering goods to the consumer, made it a losing proposition, and it was given up.  They leased a factory in Center Street, New York, and were at that time (previous to 1890) the largest manufacturers of buttons and pearl novelties in the country.   Later, they built their own factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

During the world war they arranged to have part of the business carried on down here in the winter time, in order to give employment to men who worked on farms in the summer.  It was then that the stone building in Yaphank, NY was used and buttons cut out from oyster’s shells.  This was given up in 1918 and three years ago, due to the change in business requirements, etc., the company was dissolved.  Raw materials out here and delivering goods to the consumer, made it a losing proposition, and it was given up.

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