The History of Shelling on Sanibel Island

Sanibel Seashells

Seashells are the outer skeletons of creatures called mollusks.  Mollusk means "soft-bodied." The outer skeletons provide shelter, sometimes camouflage for the animals inside. Over 500 million years of evolution have produced more than 70,000 different species have been discovered in the world’s oceans and beaches and many new species are still being found by scientists today. Since 600 million years ago when the first mollusks were formed in the ocean, distinguishable classes emerged among the shells and Phylum Mollusca and include six classes of mollusks.

A Sanibel Trio: Alphabet Cone, Scallop and Horse Conch
Seashells have been collected and admired as part of human culture for centuries. Likewise, they have played a central role in economies as the first form of money.

Made from the Northern Quahoq, a hard-shell clam and several species of whelk, wampum beads meant more than a form of currency to Native Americans of the New England coast, for they greatly valued wampum as part of their culture. Although they appeared in different sizes, true or "council" beads were 1/4" wide by 1/4" long. They were customarily used to call a council, seat council members in the correct order, speak at the council, elect a chief, depose a chief, for adoption ceremonies, during mourning, as records and deeds, as gifts, ornaments and belts were exchanged as a form of treaty (Francis, Jr., Peter).

Wampum was a legal tender in all 13 colonies and as late as 1693, commuters on the New York and Brooklyn ferries could pay with either two pence in silver or eight stivers in wampum. Taxpayers in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could pay with wampum and students could pay tuition at Harvard with wampum view source. The last recorded exchange of wampum (as money) was in New York in 1701.

The Calusa Indians of Sanibel Island, featured in this website, based their subsistence on Sanibel's ecosystem and its central character: seashells. They utilized the mollusks and their shells as efficient tools and decorative objects for trade.

In understanding the significance of shells in the Calusa Indian society and the effects of contact by Europeans on indigenous cultures, one begins to understand the importance of shells in other societies, particularly those of *post-contact Europe. Certainly, shells were one of the goods brought back [from the New World], along with minerals, spices, rare woods and medicinal herbs (Abbott, 232) due to the many expeditions that originated in Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries.

*post-contact: The time period after Europeans made contact with indigenous people in North America.

A Shell's Life: How It Makes Its Shape and Color

Shells range greatly in size, shape and color. Each shell starts out as small as a grain of rice, complete with its own tiny shell to live in. In fact, each species of shell is genetically programmed to produce the same kind of shell and color as its ancestor. However, food, climate and the environment and natural genetic mutations can greatly affect the appearance and developments of mollusks. The shiny surface of a shell comes from a portion of the animal that extends outside the shell. As it moves about in its environment, its motion polishes the shell surface, keeping it free of encrustations and dulling chemicals in the water (Neal, Mike and Julie, pg.95).

How a Junonia's Pattern is MadeThe blood of a mollusk is rich in a liquid form of calcium. A soft, outer organ called the mantle concentrates the calcium in areas where it can separate out from the blood, forming calcium carbonate crystals. The mantle deposits sheets of the crystal in varying thicknesses. The individual crystals in each layer vary in shape and orientation. One such layer is called mother-of-pearl, or nacre. It's often found in the inner layer of shells of some gastropods, bivalves and cephalopods. The layered construction increases the strength of the entire shell.

The mantle orchestrates the formation of the shell's external features, such as ribs and spines. It also designs the colors of the shell. Production of new shell material is influenced by several factors: sexual hormones, intrinsic rhythms, diet, acidity of water and temperature of water.

Colors in shells are derived from organic pigments found in food. Glandular cells collect these pigments, mix them with fluid calcite, and set this substance into the outer shell before it hardens. There are four main pigments that produce the many colors seen in shells: yellow carotenoids, black melanins, green porphyrins, and blue and red indigoids. Some shell colors, such as blue-green iridescent sheens, are caused not by color pigments, but by the refraction of light off various layers of calcite in the shell.

Most color cells are located along the front edge of the mantle where new shell material is added -- that's at the rim of the mouth for snail shells or along the free edges of valves for clams. A straight color line or ray is formed when the color cells remain in the same position as the shell grows out. If color pigment production continually starts and stops, a pattern of dots or dashes is drawn on the shell. If the color cells actually migrate to one side, a slanting trail of color is produced. Other kinds of behavior by color cells can produce circles, triangles and other shapes (Gonzaga and Airhart).


Cayenne Keyhole LimpetWhere Are Best Places to Shell in the World?

1. Sulu Islands of the Philippines
2. Jeffries Bay, South Africa
3. Sanibel Island, FL USA

Because of its location along the course of many expedition routes, Sanibel Island was likely a prime spot to acquire shells. Through indirect trading practices, Gulf Coast shells traded by the Calusa have been found in the Oklahoma and in the Midwest. Expeditions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to the establishment of wealth of many European merchants. As we know, today everyone can find shells in just about every facet of life - from soap dishes, shadow boxes, wall coverings, light fixtures, linens, furniture and jewelry.

Angel Wing

The Scientific Study of Shells

The scientific study of seashells and the animals that produce them is called malacology. This term has been used for nearly 200 years and it refers specifically to the study of mollusks, their shells and their biology (Abbott, 236). A term also used for the study of seashells is called conchology. In the past, this term has been used for novice shell collectors, but today both terms are interchangeable.

Thousands of books have been published about shells since the invention of the printing press. The first published works about shells were physicians who knew anatomy and viewed shells as being the external detailed skeletons of living animals, mollusks. These forefathers of malacology collected, observed and published works regarding their personal interests in mollusks, insects and plants. In the mid-1600's Dr. Martin Lister, physician to Queen Anne of England, made one of the first attempts at classifying mollusks in a systematic arrangements by writing Historia Conchyliorum. A comprehensive book about worldwide species, the book provided a reliable source of illustrations of species worldwide, including several hundred engraved plates (Abbott, 236).

Due to the efforts of the first European shell collectors, great interest was taken by scientists and wealthy collectors to attain a variety of shells for their drawing room collections. One of the earliest collectors was George Herbert Rumpf, born in Holland in 1627. He was a field collector, who traveled to the East Indies for the Dutch East India Company a company founded in 1600 by a group of merchants. At the time, and through its monopoly on all trading privileges with East India. The first ship docked in Surat in 1608 and the fledgling trading venture soon soared into a full-scale ruling enterprise. British towns developed around the numerous trading posts on the east and west coasts of India. Rumpf's contributions in his work showed the natural history of shells and included and the discovery that a particular species of cone shell can deliver a fatal bite to humans.

Florida ConeShell Collecting in the Age of Enlightenment

Although the first scientific expedition to the New World didn't occur until 1799, interest in natural sciences heightened during the Age of Enlightenment, a period of time that ushered in the throne of Louis XIV in 1715 and ended with the French Revolution when Napoleon Bonaparte gained power and declared himself emperor of France in 1799.

This was a time of philosophical thinking that spread through every gathering place of society and sought opposition to the ruling aristocracy. The collection of comforts, including beautiful objects, such as shells paralleled the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Industrial Revolution: Making Shells Commonplace in Many Cultures

The Age of Enlightenment gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and many scientific inventions that came to be important in the distribution of material goods throughout Europe. The changes made by using large machinery to replace human labor altered the structure of society and even today dramatically affects standards of living and social classes in the United States and other industrial nations. Materials that were once hard to come by, such as shells, could be shipped aboard steam locomotives or passenger steamships on schedule to their destinations.

Building an Understanding of the Natural World

Scientific iconography are descriptive publications which began in the nineteenth century and paralleled a movement toward more extensive interest and identification of thousands of new species by the Germans, French and the English scientists. Discoveries were also made by several wealthy men who had keen interest in the world of natural science, many of whom made great contributions to the understanding of the natural world.

Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). Father of modern plant and animal classification. In 1758, malacologist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) developed the method of two-name system (see below). Once this was established, famous zoologists Georges Cuvier (1729-1832) and H.M. de Blainville (1777-1850) popularized the term malacology (Abbott 236-238). Textbooks and manuals took over with the publication of Blainville's manual on malacology in 1825, Manual of the Mollusca (Abbott, 239).

Daniel Solander (1733-1782) traveled from Sweden in 1760 to work as an assistant at the British Museum and then as an Assistant Librarian. He was a student of Linnaeus, a conchologist and was hired by the second duchess of Portland, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, to curate and prepare a catalog of her enormous collection. The collection was a centerpiece attraction at parties where she entertained King George III, the first son of Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta, French philosopher, writer and botanist, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and famous world explorer Captain James Cook (1728-1779). Rosseau sailed with Captain Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific in 1768. Unfortunately, Solander died before the work was finished and three years later, the duchess died, but not before she spent the mass of her wealth (about $100,000 today) on her shell collection (Abbott, 234-235).

Captain Cook's voyages were very successful, contributing a wealth of information to the botanical, biological and anthropological sciences. During his third voyage to search out a northeast passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Resolution was forced to return to the Hawaiian Islands for repair. Upon their previous visit, they were mistaken for the the indigenous peoples' god, Lano. They were accepted as immortal gods until one of Cook's men took ill and died on the island. Soon, quarreling began to break out and Cook decided to sail from the island. Unfortunately, after one week at sea, the Resolution sprung her foremast and Cook was killed by natives soonafter his return to the island view source page.

Further developing the natural sciences was a famous collector, Hugh Cuming (1791-1865). Cuming sailed the Polynesian Islands and the coasts of South and Central America from 1827-1831. When he went home to London, the scientists of Europe embraced him and named nearly 2,000 new species. In later expeditions to the Philippines, he collected another 3,000 species, among 1,200 birds and 3,400 plants (Abbott, 235). It is interesting to note that Cuming later used these the remaining goods for selling and trading in European society, for it likely an exchange process in which many of the items were attained from indigenous peoples.

Shells Common to Sanibel Island Beaches

 Lace MurexThe Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum was named after two Sanibel pioneer families. Its mission is to educate the general public about mollusks all over the world, with a focus on the mollusks that inhabit the Gulf Coast, and of course, there is particular attention given to Sanibel Island species.

The regional collection of shells attracts local and international students and scientists, who visit the museum to examine specimens in their respective disciplines. Dioramas and dry aquariums showcase the importance of shells in many cultures throughout the centuries. There is even species collection themes include worldwide, local, cephalopods and fossil shells and children enjoy visiting the touch-tank and interactive games.

Please visit the link below (by clicking on the logo) to view the beautiful shells of Sanibel and Captiva Islands, courtesy of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. This guide depicts species from the collection of The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum that were gathered by many different collectors at different times and locations on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. Digital images were taken by Museum Director, Dr.José H. Leal, and the the design and layout is by Tina Petrikas. A few of Dr. Leal's photos can be seen throughout this website.

Link To The Bailey-Matthews Museum Digital Photo Archives


Best Time and Place to Look for Seashells

Twenty-four hours a day on Sanibel beaches, you can find an ample supply of shells. Islanders have a term for shell-hunting...they call it the Sanibel Stoop. This refers to the bent position one occupies for hours while having "one more look." Of course, the best time to search is soonafter a big storm. This gives shells that would otherwise stay far out in the Gulf the needed "push" to roll up to the beach. This wave action also brings in live shells, which are against the law to take. It is a treat to observe these live creatures in their natural marine environment.

The next best time to go shelling is at low tide during a new moon, when the tides are lowest. During a full moon, high tides and low tides are highest, because of the gravitational pull of the moon. Check the Sanibel weather forecast and always check the tide report. It can be heard on the radio and it is conveniently printed in several island publications, such as the Sanibel-Captiva Shoppers Guide.

Look for an island favorite, the Coquinas ("ko-kee-nahs"). They are tiny bi-valves who live in colonies under the sand at the surf zone. No two coquinas are alike - they are different pastel colors and their horizontal lines resemble sunrays. When the waves go out, coquinas stand on their side and burrow into the sand. Islanders call this the Coquina Dance.

Shells in Art

Sailor's ValentineShells have been used all over the world in art since they were first picked up on beaches. Sanibel Islanders are reviving an old artform called Sailor's Valentines.

Developed in the 19th Century by women of Barbados and neighboring Caribbean Islands for sailors to take home to their loved ones, Sanibel Island shellcrafters proudly display their art each year at the Sanibel Shell Fair in March. A permanent installation of Sailor's Valentines can be viewed at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. View Source.

Art in the City of the Gods

Hundreds of years after Teotihuacan, Mexico was abandoned, this site has been named the "City of the Gods" and not without reason, for its existence was governed by deep religious convictions and ways of life centered around the natural cycles and seasons of sowing, reaping, rainfall, and a cosmology of strict phenomenological relationships whose astronomical and calendrical expression was reflected in the construction of the city.

The Pyramid of the Moon is the oldest monument at Teotihuacan and is located 50 km northeast of Mexico City, home of the former Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. The structure we currently see was actually built in several stages (archaeologists currently have evidence for seven stages), with each succeeding pyramid being built on top of the previous stage. The current structure is 151 feet high and its walls are precisely aligned with the walls of every other structure in the city.
view source.

Teotihuacan's  Art and CultureShells Throughout Ancient History

Seashells have been integrated into many facets of cultures throughout history. The Money Cowrie (Cypraea moneta) was used as the first form of currency during the Bronze Age in China about 2,000 B.C. and later the Ringed Cowrie (Cypraea annulus) came into use. It has also been used as ornaments and charms.

Just as in today's business of currency, counterfeit cowries entered the scene and soon flat metal copies replaced the shells. The Chinese character for the word "coin" was made to resemble a real cowry.

In ancient Rome, Royal Tyrian purple was worn as a symbol of power and wealth. The dye was collected from the Murex brandaris, or common Mediterranean snail. It took over 10,000 of these mollusks to produce enough dye for one toga. Purple remained a symbol of wealth and royalty, even to the days Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) bought French purple ("solferino") china for the White House under the presidency of her husband, Abraham Lincoln. The China Room in the White House is known for having representative pieces from nearly every President, including Mrs. Todd's French purple china.View Source.

Common Mediterranean Snail


Arab merchants traded cowries for gold and ivory in Africa in the 9th and 10th centuries. They were integrated into many African cultures and can be seen in their beautiful headresses and clothing today. The Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean were the primary supply center for these cowries until the late 18th Century. The Maldives transported millions of these shells to India. Trade routes were established to carry the precious Cypraeidae through the trecherous passages over the Himalayas from Bengal to Southwest China.

When Europeans arrived in the mid-17th century, they traded money cowries (and glass beads) for slaves and ivory along the west coast of Africa (Hill and Carmichael, 47). Vast quantities were collected on the east coast of Africa and shipped to West Africa, where the shell does not occur naturally. In 1867 such a great quantity passed through the port of Lagos that the money cowry was devalued as a currency in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Golden Cowries are highly prized by Pacific Islanders. Only high-ranking chieftains in the Fiji Islands were allowed to wear the valuable shells. A pair of shells were worn around the neck for important occasions. Men traveling with Captain Cook, navigator and explorer, were largely unsuccessful in bartering for Golden Cowries (Hill and Carmichael, 49).

Money CowrieArchaeologists have revealed cowries were used to prevent sterility by women of Pompeii. They were worn by Cro-Magnon man, as indicated by cowrie ornaments found in their caves. Archeological excavations of Saxon graves in Germany, as well as pit dwellers of prehistoric England and pre-dynastic Egypt have revealed the use of the shells.

Cowry shells were also important in burial rituals in ancient China. When the emperor of China was buried in those early times, his mouth was stuffed with nine cowries! Feudal lords had seven, high officers five, and ordinary officers three. Common people generally had their mouths stuffed with rice. But if a commoner had some wealth, the last molar of each side of the mouth was supported by a small money cowry. This was to ensure that the dead had plenty to eat and spend in the afterlife (Gonzaga and Airhart).

Shells in Advertising

The Calico Scallop (Argopecten gibbus) serves as the logo of Shell Oil Company. The unknowing ambassador of seashells to the masses, the scallop comes in many different shades of color. Their main predator is the starfish. Unlike ther bi-valves like the oyster who cannot move about freely, scallops migrate in large groups to better feeding grounds by rapidly opening and closing their shells and squirting out jets of water in their wake.

History  of the Shell Logo The Shell story began in 1833, when Marcus Samuel opened a small curio shop in London’s East End. During a family vacation at the beach, Samuel’s children became fascinated with seashells, and they decorated their lunch pails with the sandy treasures. Samuel saw sales potential in these knickknacks. He had several kinds of “shell boxes” created, and soon they were selling in English beach resorts.

Samuel wanted more exotic shells for his own place of business, which became known as The Shell Shop. Soon, he was regularly importing high-quality shells from the Orient, and his business prospered. During this time he hired over 40 employees, all women, to make shell boxes. Samuel died in 1870, leaving his two sons valuable business contacts throughout Asia.

In 1878, the younger Marcus Samuel expanded his father’s thriving import-export business to include cased oil (often kerosene, then the world’s top-selling fuel). Twelve years later, he was on a buying trip when he noticed the harbor in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) jammed with tanker ships loading Russian oil. The fuel would soon be shipped to the Far East and used in lamps and stoves.

Shells in Trade for Ceremonial Purposes

The Trombriand Islanders in Melanesia have an elaborate ceremonial practice, called the Kula Ring. It involves the exchange of shell valuables in an intricate inter-island trading network. This practice was first studied by anthropologist Bronsilaw Malinowski. Men set sail for lengthy periods of time to travel the Kula Network, a very precise method of distribution around tiny islands in the Coral and Soloman Seas. Each piece has a value, dependent on how finely polished it is, its size, color and history of previous ownerships. Necklaces circulate through the islands in a clockwise direction and white arm shell bands circulate in a counter-clockwise direction. No person holds on to the shell valuables for more than 10 years before it is passed on, with all the stories connected to it (Haviland, 208).

Moon Snail. Painted in PhotoshopThe Sea and Shells in Poetry

What makes shell collectors like shells so much? Poems express our observation of the world and addresses the emotions associated with what takes place in life. Poetry helps the reader capture and collect a tiny glimpse into the observations or life events of another. Reading poetry is one good method of getting to know ourselves through the experiences of other human beings or get through the difficult times, challenges and new or profound life-changing experiences.

Collecting shells and sharing finds with another is a vehicle of expression that allows us to communicate with each other. We collect them also for remembrance. Whether it be through several forms of reciprocity or a display at a shell show, collecting shells is important - for they are a cultural symbols that link people of all ages together.

Treasures Found on Sanibel Beach

by Oomiya Kawas

I try to tell myself not to cry too hard
But I remember those times so I let down my guard
I used to come and visit you
Every weekend since I was 2
When they put you in that home
I was almost full grown
Sundial. Painted in PhotoshopI knew everything that was happening to you
You missed your house I swear I did too
I hated them all for what they did
I was the only one who know about the life you had left to live
You probably can't remember now
But I wear seashells to remember you
Because I remember when you used to give them to me when I felt blue
Please try hard not to forget me
Because in my heart you'll always be
I love you more than anyone here
I wish you could always be near
It hurts so bad when you don't remember my name
I don't think I've ever felt that kind of pain
Don't you worry I'll always remember you My Grammy
The one who gave me seashells when I was blue.


Shelling at Low Tide on Sanibel Beach
by Molly Hottinger

A yellow lotus sun rose for the first time
On Sanibel Beach, a glorious climb
From the ink well of the night

Eastern Bluebirds noticed it too
And flooded the ocean sky
in exhalation of the coming day
Above the sway of sea oats

Spotted sandpipers scurry the shoreline
Picking coquina meat and following
The advance and retreat of
Sand fiddlers, shellers with netted bags

Salty sandy treasures
Common fig, crown conch, jewel box
Roll onto shore

Until the monarch sun slips
Gives way
To low tide again
To Polaris
Pegasus and Perseus

An invisible chorus of crickets sing in the seagrapes.
A Luna moth finds distant light and dances.
A Green Heron tucks her head beneath her wing.

Horse Conch. Painted in Photoshop. Image courtesy of: The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum

Shell Clubs and Organizations

Conchologists of America
The American Malacological Society
Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club - 239-395-1770

Sanibel Links

J.N. (Ding) Darling Wildlife Refuge

Sanibel & Captiva Chamber of Commerce

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation


Museum Links

Florida Museum of Natural History


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