River Mussels (Clams) Produce Pearls
By Great River Publishing and various authors as noted. All Rights Reserved.

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Mississippi River Mussels ( clams ) produce pearls.

Table of Contents

Muscatine, Iowa, and the Pearl Button Industry

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.

     Factories in 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.



Orma Remembers Clamming on Lake Pepin
Excerpted from Discover! America's Great River Road, Volume 1. 1996, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2010



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

A pearl buyer with his harvest of "chicken feed" (PEARL) for the day.

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 pottery.

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. (shown below)


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 future.

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