If you’ve ever been to Sanibel Island, you are more than aware of its world-famous shelling.
Our family spent many happy winters there in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and we have the fabulous shell collection to prove it. The late actor Raymond Burr of Ironside fame (a series that apparently is being resurrected by NBC this coming fall) was instrumental in helping to establish a shell museum on Sanibel Island. Growing up, Ironside was a family favorite in our household, and Sanibel Island a favorite destination, so I found it kind of interesting years later to learn that the man playing a tough chief of detectives on a TV series had a keen interest in preserving and protecting the seashells on the island I loved (and still love — my husband and I had a sunrise beach wedding there a decade ago) and was a keen fundraiser for the museum. His activities are memorialized by a garden dedicated to him.
The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, as it is officially called, is fascinating and well worth a visit, if you ever find yourself on Sanibel. By the time you leave, you’ll definitely know your gastropods and bivalves! And you will have seen extraordinary collections from around the world, including exquisite hand-carved shells and delightfully crafted sailor’s valentines.
We spent a long weekend on the island last month and stopped by the museum before heading home. I had not been there in 5-6 years and found myself most intrigued by the exhibit on cowry shells, which were used as a form of currency for hundreds of years. I had never realized how widespread their use was, and — having focused so much on family history in recent years — could not help but imagine how these shells may have been an integral part of my distant ancestors’ daily life.
Interestingly, these little gifts of the sea were only found in the vicinity of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, making them hard to counterfeit and easier to control. They were uniform in size, making them easy to count, weigh, and ship, and were found in abundance. Those charged with collecting them could gather as many as 12,000 in a single day. The extensive cowry trade went on for six centuries, before petering out in the late 1860s due to inflation and the rising popularity of metal coins. One museum sign describes what you could buy with a set number of cowries in Africa in the mid-1800s. A house would set you back by 4 million cowries, a cow — 2,500 cowries, a chicken — 50 cowries. Gents looking to secure a bride could do so for 50,000 cowries. And yes, sadly, they were involved in the slave trade — a sad chapter in their history, indeed. For an interesting article on Money Cowries, click here.
Seashells for me will always have a strong connection to Sanibel Island, and I am very thankful for that. One cannot help but feel great joy walking the island’s beaches, observing it’s glorious sunrises and spectacular sunsets, and listening to the sound of the gentle gulf surf washing ashore. As an added bonus, hubby discovered that the from-shore snook fishing on Sanibel is some of the best in the world, and I am thankful for that as well, since that’s an additional carrot I’ll be able to dangle before him whenever that next urge to visit Sanibel comes over me!
**Cowry Trading print (Wikimedia): This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.