A docent's family connection with abalone-shell button-making in New Jersey

I know it’s a cliché to say “it’s a small world” but on a visit to my 93 year old father in New Jersey, I learned how very true this is. As always, I brought copies of the latest Point Lobos magazines , which had some mention of abalone in them. This led my father to tell me a story which I’d never heard before.

I knew my fraternal grandmother’s family immigrated from Austria in 1907. Her father had been an apprentice button-maker in Europe and soon set up a shop in New Jersey. Here’s the part I’d never heard before : he received shipments of very large crates full of abalone shells from California .

The huge shells were cut to make rounds, and drilled and polished for buttons . (picture the buttons in the Cabin ).  Even though this was done using some water, my great-grandfather eventually developed silicosis in his lungs from exposure to the dust . This led to tuberculosis and his death .

My father says that the crates were valuable wood for the family and everything was used - for kindling, in kitchen stoves, making small items , etc . Later on we shared a summer home with my grandparents so perhaps some of the items that were on the workbench and elsewhere were made from the crates .  I remember a lot of things looking “homemade” rather than store-bought. If my grandfather or father needed a tool for a specific task, generally they fashioned it themselves.

I would never have imagined a connection between my family and the abalone fishing in the early 1900’s here in California. Small world, I would say.

Posted by docent June Banks


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