Celebrating our 'Shellversary'

The traditional 17th anniversary gift is made from shell which symbolically reflects the nature of the occasion. Shells come from the ocean, and an ocean's vast expanse and hidden depths reflect the nature of a seventeen-year relationship, the depths of which are still being explored. An ocean can be completely calm, or wild and stormy, mirroring the trials of life that can cause a relationship to have its ups and downs.

Help us celebrate 17 years at Grey Roots and explore some of the interesting shell artefacts found in the collection.

A History of Shell Collecting

People have always been fascinated by shells. Rare and unique varieties have been featured in Cabinets of Curiosity from the late 16th century.

By assembling and showcasing fascinating objects from around the world, individuals believed they were proving themselves to be in possession of the entirety of contemporary knowledge. Moreover, it gave them a sense of dominance over the universe.

Ritratto Del Museuo di Ferrante Imperato, 1599

Engraving from Ferrante Imperato's Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples, 1599). This is the earliest illustration of a natural history cabinet. An assortment of shells can be seen displayed on the ceiling.


Kunst- und Raritätenkammer, 1636

Frans Francken the Younger's Kunst- und Raritätenkammer (Chamber of Art and Curiosities), painted in 1636, depicts the corner of a cabinet and showcases an assortment of shells.


Musei Wormiani Historia, 1655

Illustration showing the Cabinet of Curiosity of Ole Worm (1588 - 1654). Worm, also known as Olaus Wormius, was a Danish physician, natural historian, antiquarian, and professor at the University of Copenhagen. Note the Conchiliata (shells) and the tortoiseshells hanging on the wall. 


Shell collecting soared to new heights in the 17th century among Europe’s elite. This obsessive hobby, dubbed “Conchylomania,” (from the Latin "concha", for cockle or mussel) started when the Dutch East India Company returned from Indonesia with shells that no westerner had seen before.


The Conchologist by George Spratt and G.E. Madeley, c. 1831

The Conchologist is a hand colored lithograph print by George Spratt and G. E. Madeley and published by C. Tilt of Fleet Street, London, about 1831. An example of a personification print, a woman is fashioned from shells found in the ocean or at the seashore. 


Shells have also served as a creative medium for artists over the centuries. Shellwork or shellcraft (pieces adorned with shells or composed of a pattern of shells) first appeared in the late 1600s on boxes and caskets: by the 1700s, shellwork had become a popular craftswoman's work.


Portrait of shell artist Mary Delany by John Opie, 1782

Victorian ladies could purchase shellwork supplies in shops where little packets were sold with shells already sorted and accompanied by printed patterns for forming shell flowers, boxes and frames. To attach shells to a decorative object, the shells were dipped into hot wax or glue.

A cottage industry arose among the enterprising working-class who populated the port towns of France, Holland, and England. They crafted and sold their handmade “shell souvenirs” for income. Most of the souvenirs were designed for women - small boxes, sewing drawers, little frames and other small mementos.

I have got a new madness, I am running wild after shells… the beauty of shells is as infinite as flowers, and to consider how they are inhabited enlarges a field of wonder that leads one insensibly to the great Director and author of these works.

Quote from Mary Delaney, one of the leading shell artists of the 1700s.
A shellwork dresser box with mirror decorated with a variety of shells on the box and lid.

Dresser Box with Mirror, 1900-1960

ID 1960.001.093

An example of shellwork or shellcraft. A wall-mounted dresser box decorated with shells and a mirror.

Shellcraft needlework or sewing box with legs.

Shellcraft Box, 1920-1960

ID 1968.001.033

Rectangular shellcraft needlework or sewing box with legs. 

Shellcraft Dresser Box with Pincushion.

Shellwork Dresser Box with Pincushion, 1875-1925

ID 2017.021.002

A shell work dresser box or trinket box with a large shaped pincushion on the top of the lid and two large purple clam shells on the lower half.  The underside is marked with "Made in England".

Pearlescent Adornments

Nacre or mother of pearl, is an organic–inorganic material produced by some mollusks as a protective inner shell layer, and the material used to form pearls. It is strong, resilient, and iridescent. Commercial sources include the pearl oyster, freshwater pearl mussels, and to a lesser extent the abalone, popular for their sturdiness and beauty in the 1800s.


Pinctada margaritifera (Photograph by Didier Descouens)

Pinctada margaritifera is a variety of pearl oyster. Note the beautiful iridescent quality of the nacre or mother of pearl hidden inside the rocklike exterior.

During the 1600s, buttons made from mother of pearl became quite fashionable, leading to a rise in the European button industry. Mother of pearl reached its height of popularity one hundred years later. Production became so intense that thousands of tons of oysters were harvested and transported around the world for the button-making industry, which used nearly 300,000 pounds of oyster shell annually.

A. J. Begg's wooden work box with mother of pearl inlay.

A. J. Begg's Work Box, about 1850 

ID 1964.073.002

Woman's wooden work box (i.e. sewing box) with mother of  pearl inlay work on the front and top.  It is personalized with the name "A. J. BEGG", likely the original owner of the box. 

White button style cuff links made with mother of pearl.

Cufflinks, 1900s

ID 1965.001.009  

White button style cuff links made using mother of pearl, still in their original box. Used to fasten the cuffs of dress shirts.

White-trimmed, sand-colored, two-piece child's dress that fastens at the back using eleven mother of pearl buttons.

May Russell's Dress, 1870s

ID 1974.051.001AB  

White-trimmed, sand-coloured, two-piece child's dress that belonged to May Russell (b. 1871).  Styled as a coat dress, it fastens at the back using eleven mother of pearl buttons.  Worn by May Russell (Mary Helen Forbes Russell) of Durham, Grey County, in the 1870s.   

A woman's penknife, with mother of pearl side covers.

Rhoda Ross's Penknife, early 1900s

ID 1975.083.074 

A woman's penknife, with mother of pearl side covers, and "R R" engraved centrally on one cover's inset piece. It belonged to Miss Rhoda Ross (1897-1971) of Owen Sound, Grey County. 

An ornate, mother of pearl thread spool with a flower like design.

Victorian Thread Spools, 1860s

ID 2009.055.006 

An ornate, mother of pearl thread spool.  The top, which is meant to be displayed in a sewing stand, has a ring of pierced, star-like motifs, and a delicate, flower-like design.

Two-piece mother of pearl needle case.

Needle Case, 1800s

ID 2009.055.019ab

Two-piece mother of pearl needle case or needle safe. 

Turtle Shell Fashion

Tortoiseshell comes from the shells of larger species of tortoise and turtle, mainly the hawksbill sea turtle, now a critically endangered species. Tortoiseshell has been used since ancient times to manufacture a variety of items such as combs, small boxes and frames, furniture inlay, spectacle frames, guitar picks and knitting needles.


Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Despite being expensive, tortoiseshell was attractive to manufacturers and consumers for its beautiful mottled appearance, durability, and its organic warmth against the skin. It is easily molded by heat and pressure and can be shaped on a lathe. Today the use of tortoiseshell is illegal in many parts of the world.

Clamshell-style tortoiseshell cigarette case.

Cigarette Case, 1960s

ID 1960.088.002 

Clamshell-style tortoiseshell cigarette case.

Woman's hair comb, made of tortoiseshell.

Hair Comb, 1800s

ID 1963.033.002  

Woman's hair comb, made of amber colored tortoiseshell for decorating and supporting her hairstyle.

Celebrating our Shellversary will be available to view onsite, when we re-open to the public!

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