Pearl or Shell has been used to produce buttons from pre-colonial times. In the U.S., most of the pearl buttons were produced from imported freshwater or oceanic shells prior to 1891. Some marine shell buttons were manufactured in the US in 1855, however, early attempts to use native freshwater shells in Knoxville in 1883 failed, either due to foreign competition or inadequate equipment. Abalone shells from the Pacific coast were first fashioned into buttons in 1750 and continue to be produced today.
It was only when mechanization took place that mollusk shells, in particular pearl shells, were used in any quantity for button making. The button industry reached its peak in the late 19th century producing billions of pearl buttons which were used for buttoning up every sort of garments, shoes, and accessories - in fact too many uses to name here.
Mother of pearl buttons and other shell buttons are both types of natural buttons made from materials found in nature, rather than being mass-produced, like plastic or metal buttons. Mother of pearl shell is just one type of shell used to make buttons—you can also find buttons made of nautilus, abalone, oyster, mussel, and snail shells.