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.
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
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).
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
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 (Cypraeaannulus) came into use. It has also been used as ornaments and
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
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,
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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
To low tide again
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.