Labour History

‘You really only made it because you needed the money’: Aboriginal Women and Shellwork Production, 1870s to 1970s

Labour History (2011), 101, (1), 71–89.


For almost 150 years, Aboriginal women around Sydney have engaged in an informal cash economy by making and selling small shell-decorated objects. The longevity of the practice, which spans the period from the 1870s to the present, provides a rare opportunity to present a detailed historical case study of aspects of Aboriginal women’s work in settled Australia. This discussion pays careful attention to the changing contexts within which these commodities were made and sold, along with Aboriginal women’s responses to new and changed conditions in ways that sought to sustain this valued economic activity. The approach used in this article combines interpretation of archival, pictorial and oral history sources about markets and makers with analysis of the objects themselves.

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Author details

Nugent, Maria