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         ||   P.O. Box 356  ~  Browns Valley, CA 95918  ~  Tel: (530) 743-1339   ||   

Buttons - Made in America
Posted 2005

Everything is being mass-produced nowadays, overseas (read China), and in plastic! Almost the only time you find anything worthwhile now, it is vintage. During a recent road trip to Connecticut to do a trunk show at Laura McCabe’s Bead Studio “Just Let Me Bead”, in Mystic, CT., we were introduced by Laura to Florence Waxman, who was selling off and closing down the contents of the Button Box, an antique store that in another life had been a button factory. It was the end of an era.

The name of the factory was the Mansfield Button Factory, in Guylieville, CT. The owners were Leo and Rita Heinige. Leo had immigrated to the US with his parents when he was seven years old, from Czechoslovakia, back in the 1920’s. They came from a long line of pearl cutters, producing buttons in Europe going back 300 years. Leo’s father started his first button factory in New Jersey, and Leo worked in that factory, gaining experience until in 1940 he moved to Connecticut with his young wife Rita who was from Canada, and opened his own factory in Guylieville, the Mansfield Button Company.

They imported large oyster, abalone and mother of pearl shells from Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia; which were the only shells with the proper iridescence needed to be made into the buttons that were in demand at the time, then cut the shell into smaller pieces from which cabochons, rings, buttons and carvings were hand carved. Some of the oysters when cracked open still had pearls growing inside, and Florence showed us a pair she was given by Rita to make into jewelry. Florence still hasn’t done so.


The Heinege’s chose Connecticut because it was close to the fashion industry that was centered around Providence, Rhode Island, which was still thriving at the time, although definitely on the decline. The whole region was sprinkled with button, bead and thread companies, import houses, and factories. There were approximately 150 button factories scattered around the U.S. at the time. Now there are two, one being J. Carucci & Sons of Lyndhurst, N.J., which does have a family connection to Leo and Rita Heinege.

The Mansfield Button Company produced huge quantities of shell buttons, which were very popular and fashionable at that time.


Eventually, though, the popularity of mother of pearl buttons started to decline, and plastic buttons became all the rage, and in 1960 the decision was made to close down the factory instead of investing in the equipment needed to make plastic buttons. One reason would have been the cost to produce American made plastic buttons would be much higher than Chinese or Asian costs. Labor in the region was very organized, as well, and accounted for many other factories shutting down and relocating to the south, or even overseas. The Heinege’s decided instead to convert the factory into an antique store, the Button Box, which they ran until 1992, when Leo past away.

Rita and Leo
Heinege in front
of the Button Box.


Rita continued to run the store with help from her long time friend and companion Florence, (whom she had met first as a customer and then in 1957 joined as an unpaid volunteer), until failing health in 2003 forced Rita to close the store. Florence has been selling off the contents, and when we met her in late November 2004, was close to selling the entire building and all the contents to one customer. We were able to purchase most of the remaining stock of shell buttons and spacers, cabochons and miscellaneous jewelry parts of abalone and mother of pearl carvings.

Since the last year of production was 1960, all of the buttons now in our possession are over 44 years old. Most of the buttons in our possession are mother of pearl, but also some abalone.



The buttons are mostly clothing buttons, but there are lots of shoe buttons, and plenty of large rings which can be used for jewelry.





Also many varieties of shell buttons
and sequins in different sizes and colors.



In Quartzsite, Arizona, this year, we offered some of these buttons for sale, and Patsy Bieser of Mesa, Colorado, purchased quite a few to incorporate into her pine needle baskets she handmakes. Patsy has been making pine needle baskets since 1992, and is self taught.

Pine needle basket – Patsy Bieser.

By the time this article goes to print, the Button Box will have been sold, and the buttons scattered to various buyers like ourselves. With the Earth’s rapidly diminishing resources, large quantities of shell buttons of the quality made by factories like the Mansfield Button Company probably won’t be made again, and certainly not in the United States. Like most well crafted hand made artifacts, they have drifted away in the mists of time.

Wild Things Beads will be offering these buttons for sale. Contact us for more information.


Wild Things Beads  ~  P.O. Box 356  ~  Browns Valley, CA 95918  ~  Tel: (530) 743-1339

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