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Button Cutting

Small shell cutting shops popped up throughout Muscatine and other communities. Neighborhoods hummed with the sound of cutting machines. Piles of cut shell accumulated in alleyways. Cutting shops ranged in size from one-man outfits to more sophisticated operations employing several dozen men. Families often went into the shell cutting business together. The cutting shops interior commonly featured a series of machines arranged below a row of windows that provided the major light source. Buckets of shells and button blanks, tongs for holding shells, saw files, and other tools were scattered in work areas while shell dust covered surfaces.

Shell cutters operated lathes with tubular saws made of hardened steel and used tongs to hold the shell in place. Jets of water sprayed on the saw during cutting to keep it cool and to control dust. The cutter produced blanks or circular pieces of shell with one rough side and one smooth side. Before the shell could be cut, it soaked in water for at least one week. Without proper soaking, the brittle shell splintered and caused extreme wear on cutting saws.

Working conditions in shell cutting shops were unpleasant at best. The water needed during cutting drenched workers with building temperatures fluctuating. All workers experienced the discomfort of standing in the same position all day, but many also sustained injuries. While shell dust irritated the throat and lungs, flying shell particles caused eye injuries.

The average cutter could use up to 100 pounds of shell a day, resulting in about twenty-five gross, or 3,600 blanks. Since workers were paid by the piece, they wanted to produce as many blanks as possible. The cutting shop carefully weighed the amount of shell given to each worker. The skill and careful attention of the cutter was required to obtain the optimal number of blanks per shell. Managers penalized workers for cutting imperfect, thin, and otherwise unusable blanks. Workers were also held responsible for excessive waste of shell.