Last Of The Pearl Buttons
“COME ON IN OUT OF THE MOSQUITOES,” SAYS DANIEL Martinek. He is standing next to a shotgun shack beside a stand of tall loblolly pines. “This is where I spent every day for thirty-five years. It looks like it’s over now.” Inside, line shafting runs down the middle of the single long room; muskrat hangers are suspended along either side. Connected to the shafting are a dozen small machines used in the manufacture of mother-of-pearl buttons. White pearl dust covers everything. We are on Elliott Island, one of the remotest spots on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Here Dan Martinek is watching an industry vanish.
“It’s four years since we had seven or eight people working here,” he says. “But we were doing good until last year. Then it went dead, and I mean dead, dead, dead. It’s been bad before, but never this bad.” He hasn’t had an order in months. Mother-of-pearl buttons cost at least three times as much as plastic ones, are more fragile, and are indistinguishable except to an expert.
“We moved here in 1950 from Little Ferry, New Jersey,” he says. “I was seven. Daddy had a mink farm there and made buttons too. The doctor told him he was sick and had to move. Daddy ran out of money, so he built this shop, bringing down machines he’d had in New Jersey. He says now if he had it to do over again, he never would.
“These machines are all maybe seventy years old, maybe older. There are two other companies left in America that make pearl buttons, or were making them, and we’ve swapped these with them sometimes. Let me show you how they work.” He flips a switch, and the overhead shafting whirs into motion. “Now, when you get shells, after you grind the hinges off, you set a shell here and punch out the button blanks with this machine. Each hole you punch, that’s eight cents, so you try to get every one.” As he drills into a shell, he says, “I love that smell.” It is an acrid, familiar smell—the same hot calcium odor as from a dentist’s drill.
The next step is pouring the blanks into a sieve to shake off dust. Then he drops them onto a grading machine—basically two nearly parallel pipes closer together at the top end. Buttons roll down between the pipes and fall into several boxes according to thickness. “The first box you throw away or save them for inlays—for instance, those little markers on the rims of pool tables. We used to have a good business in them. The thickest blanks you split, by this saw over here. Then you’ll end up with sixteen cents instead of eight. You’d pick up a nickel on the ground, right? Well, this is better. Only some that are too thin I have to split by hand.” He shows me how, with a hammer and a blade.
“Then with this grinding wheel here you grind the back off—the dark of the shell. You flatten the faces between two grinding stones, and you have a perfect blank. Now you need to make the faces and the holes. We used to have seven women here drilling holes, and eighty gross a day was good. Then we got our one new machine. It cost $5,000, and it was a gamble, but it saved the business for fifteen years. You just turn it on and lay the buttons onto it, one by one, one a second all day long, and you’ve done more than a hundred gross in a day. That saved us until something happened. Those buttons you’re wearing”—he points at my standard-issue Brooks Brothers shirt, whose buttons do look just like his—“those are sixteen-line English four-hole polyester. They cost two cents apiece. We can’t compete. And the shells aren’t as good as they used to be either.”
He pulls a corncob pipe out of his pocket, loads and lights it, and goes on. “Once you’ve got a couple of cans of buttons, maybe two hundred gross, you put them in a barrel with pumice and roll them for two hours. That cuts off all your blemishes. Then you wash them and put them in a polish barrel.” After that they go through sulfuric acid and a hydrogen peroxide bleach. “Then you put them to dry in this baby.” It is a custom-rigged clothes dryer.
The next-to-final step is a toss in corncob dust and finishing cream to add luster and then in corncob dust alone to remove the cream. “Then comes the hard part: sorting them.” He leads me to a conveyor-belt setup that lets buttons pass one side up and then the other. “You have to look at them and take out all the yellow ones. You couldn’t give away yellow buttons, so you dye them gray, for ladies’ shirts and so on.”
He switches off the drive machinery and smiles at it and says, “That’s what I listened to for thirty-five years, that hum. I miss it. I do. I just loved to come here in the wintertime, when the weather’s cold, and turn the furnace up to sixty-five and prop my feet on the radiator and work. There’s nothing like it. I never missed a day. Even if I was sick, I’d sit and punch blanks. But it’s over with.”
He gestures toward the boxes of blanks awaiting orders that will not come. “All these I’ll put out on the driveways here, just so people will remember me after I’m gone.”