COWRY, the popular name of the shells of the Cypraeida, a family of mollusks. Upwards of 100 species are recognized, and they are widely distributed over the world - their habitat being the shallow water along the sea-shore. The best known is the money cowry or Cypraea moneta, a small shell about half an inch in length, white and straw-coloured without and blue within, which derives its distinctive name from the fact that in various countries it has been employed as a kind of currency. (See Shell-money.) In Africa among those tribes, such as the Niam-Niam, who do not recognize their monetary value, the shells are in demand as fashionable decorations, just as in Germany they were in use as an ornament for horses' harness, and were popular enough to acquire several native names, such as Brustharnisch or breastplates, and Otterköpfchen or little adders' heads. Besides the Cypraea moneta various species are employed in this decorative use. The Cypraea aurora is a mark of chieftainship among the natives of the Friendly Islands; the Cypraea annulus is a favourite with the Asiatic islanders; and several of the larger kinds have been used in Europe for the carving of cameos. The tiger cowry, Cypraea tigris, so well known as a mantelpiece ornament in England and America, is commonly used by the natives of the Sandwich Islands to sink their nets; and they have also an ingenious plan of cementing portions of several shells into a smooth oval ball which they then employ as a bait to catch the cuttle-fish. While the species already mentioned occur in myriads in their respective habitats, the Cypraea princeps and the Cypraea umbilicata are extremely rare.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)