by Jane Bianchi | May 15, 2017

She Sells Seashells

Meticulously handcrafted centerpieces from the ocean’s exoskeletal garden

A pre-war bouquet of hand-made shell flowers on view at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County; Photography by Susan Speaks

A pre-war bouquet of hand-made shell flowers on view at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County; Photography by Susan Speaks McGirt

If the cleverest thing that you’ve ever done with seashells is spell your name in the sand, this story will put your skills to shame.

It begins in the 1930s with a group of women from Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County. Their “fisherfolk” husbands had moved to the area from the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas for better fishing, but their families were still struggling.

When social worker Mary Anderson visited to buy fresh fish, she noticed what beautiful crafts the women were making: decorative home items like sconces, wall hangings, jewelry boxes, hats and baskets. Many included flowers made of shells.

Anderson, an advocate of the Women’s Guild, a philanthropic arm of the Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, encouraged the women to sell their crafts. The Guild connected them with buyers and designers who made their wares more sophisticated. Soon, the women were dyeing shells, using a dentist’s tool that could drill a shell without shattering it, opening a shop in Palm Beach and supplying items to 40 stores across the country. The price per piece varied by size and ranged from $25 to more than $500.

“The crafts are exquisite. You can see the minute workmanship that’s been put into them,” says Waverly Shirreffs, 78, who was gifted a centerpiece that now lives on her kitchen table.

With all the new work, the women needed someone to watch their kids. So, in 1939, the Guild created an organization, Opportunity, Inc., that became a model for the many nursery schools that were opened by the federal government, as more women went to work in World War II. Today, Opportunity, Inc. still helps almost 100 under-resourced children ages six weeks to five years through holistic educational programs, making it the oldest children’s charity in Palm Beach.

Since nobody makes these rare crafts anymore, they’ve become collector’s items that are often passed down through generations, but some are on display at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

 

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