Mississippi River Mussels ( clams ) produce pearls.
Table of Contents
Excerpt from Discover!
America's Great River Road, by Pat Middleton, Volume 2 © 1992. May not be
reproduced without permission.
In 1884, a German by the name of J.F. Boepple founded the Mississippi
River pearl button industry by applying his native trade to the abundant Mississippi River
mussels. By 1890, Muscatine was known as the Pearl Button Capital of the World.
2,500 workers were employed in 43 different button-related businesses.
Muscatine received the rounded blanks cut from clam shells from as far away as Prairie du
Chien, Wisconsin, and Louisiana, Missouri. Round saws were used to cut blanks or circular
pieces from the clam shell. The white pearl shells were often 1/2 inch or more thick. This
blank was divided into several unfinished buttons which were ground on a traveling band
that passed under grindstones. A depression was made in each disk and holes drilled for
the thread. The buttons were then smoothed, polished with pumice stone and water in
revolving kegs, sorted, and sewed on cards. The "holey" shells and rough blanks
can still be found in the soil along the river.
Much of the machinery used in the button industry was invented and
manufactured in Muscatine. An outstanding collection of memorabilia (including some of the
early button making equipment) is on display at the Laura Musser Home Museum. A new museum
devoted to the pearl button industry has recently opened.
People did a lot of commercial clamming then in Lake Pepin and along
the river. Kettles dotted the shorelines where the clams were boiled to open the shells.
Empty shells were heaped along the shore.
My mother told me about
toe clamming in Stoddard. She would walk
along the shore in shallow water feeling for clams with her toes. She often showed me the
good pearl she had mounted on a ring. Buyers would visit the clammers to buy their harvest
of pearls, slugs, and "chicken feed."
Along the Mississippi
River. Mussels, clams produce river pearls
by Ruth Nissen of the Wisconsin DNR
Pearls have been a favorite gem since ancient times. Their appeal is
universal. Native Americans of the Upper Mississippi River Valley were wearing pearls in
necklaces and other ornaments when the early French explorers arrived. The pearls came
from freshwater mussels or clams found in the Mississippi and other rivers and streams.
They were most likely found while using the mussels for food and the shells for tempering
Today, pearls are available in several types, natural or cultured and
freshwater or marine. Cultured pearls are created by inserting an irritant into the
shell of an oyster. The oyster then secretes a pearly coating to cover the irritant. A natural
pearl is pearl all the way through. A cultured pearl is mainly a mussel shell bead
with a very thin pearl coating.
Although most natural pearls are found in oysters, they also are found
in many different species of freshwater mussels or clams all over the world. Natural
pearls tend to be irregular in shape and not as desirable as the high-luster, spherical,
cultured pearls. However, the free sculpture of a misshapen freshwater pearl has an appeal
all its own.
Natural pearls come in a variety of colors. The tones of the freshwater
pearls are dictated by the mother shell. White is the most common, followed by pink. Other
colors depend on the type of mussels. Big washboard mussels usually have pink pearls, as
do the wartybacks. Threeridge mussels have pearls in shades of blue-green and lavendar.
Muckets produce fine pink pearls, and sand shells have salmon-pink pearls.
One pearl dealer in this area recalls a bright blue pearl that was found
about 15 years ago. Rumor says the finder bought a farm or ranch with the proceeds from
selling the pearl.
Shape of the Pearl
The shape of a pearl is determined by its location in a shell. Those
along the lip are round and are the most valuable. Wing-shaped pearls form along the back
of the shell, and irregular pearls form in the heels of shells.
Blister pearls, where the pearl is attached to the shell, are the most
common. Some people collect shells with blister pearls, and occasionally a free pearl
exists inside the blister pearl.
A good-sized irregular pearl can be found in about one in 100 clams.
However, a good-sized, natural, round pearl occurs only once in every 10,000 clams.
The future of the Mississippi River and its mussels is uncertain. Mussel
populations were impacted by their use in the button industry earlier in this century and
their use today in the cultured pearl industry. They also have been affected by changes in
the river brought on by the building of locks and dams, as well as pollution, siltation,
and navigational effects. (See Clam Lady of American Rivers)
Now the native species face a new threat, in the form of the invading zebra mussels.
The mussel, a simple creature with a unique ability to produce
magnificent pearls, has a colorful past and is an integral part of the fascinating history
of the river. Let us hope that native mussels never cease to be part of the river's
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