COMMERCIAL USE OF UNIONID MUSSELS

In the past, freshwater mussels were of great value to Indian tribes as food and the shells were utilized as tools. More recent uses of the shells were in the production of buttons and cultured pearls.

Pearl Buttons

Occasionally, someone will find an old, chalky shell with perfectly round holes in it. These shells are artifacts from the pearl-button industry. The buttons weren’t made from pearls but from the nacre (mother-of- pearl) of the shell. Several species with white nacre and sufficient shell thickness were used in the industry. A hollow drill was used to produce button blanks, which were then polished and thread holes were bored. White buttons on old dresses and shirts made before the 1940s probably are made from mussel shells.

Shells were used for buttons
Photo by Edwin Miller

The button industry started with a German immigrant, John Boepple, who settled in Muscatine, Iowa in the 1890s. He developed the technique of making buttons from mussel shells. The industry grew rapidly and soon the expansive Mississippi River mussel beds were depleted. For example, one mussel bed near New Boston, Illinois reportedly yielded 10,000 tons of shells. The industry spread as far west as eastern Kansas. Button factories were located along the Neosho River in Iola, Oswego and Chetopa. The factory in Iola processed up to 18 tons of shells in one week in 1922. By the late 1940s, mussel beds were depleted, plastic buttons became a widely accepted substitute and the mother-of-pearl button industry faded away.

Natural and Cultured Pearls

Shells are used for cultured pearls
Photo by Edwin Miller

Freshwater mussels rarely produce natural pearls. They were once a highly valued item and an indicator of affluence. Reportedly, there were two freshwater pearls found in the upper Mississippi River that sold for $50,000 and $65,000 in 1902. However, the scarcity of pearls changed with a Japanese innovation developed by Kokichi Mikimoto in 1893. He perfected the technique of consistently producing cultured pearls by implanting mother-of-pearl pellets cut from freshwater mussels into pearl oysters.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Japanese demand for shells needed to supply the nuclei of cultured pearls raised the value of freshwater mussel shells enough to fuel an export business. By 1978, seven million pounds of shells were exported from the United States and nearly all ended up in Japan. Once there, the thick white shells were milled to form spheres that would be implanted into pearl oysters. Eventually the implants would take on the luster of the pearl oyster and they would be removed and sold to jewelers as cultured pearls.

In Kansas, the southeastern rivers have been commercially harvested for three species of mussels; threeridge, mapleleaf and monkeyface. Just over 1.5 million pounds of threeridge shells and over 2.3 million pounds of total shells were removed from Kansas waters for export trade between 1989 and 2001. In 2003, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism imposed a ten year moratorium on commercial harvest to evaluate the effect of this activity on mussel populations.

Go back to the Mussel Bed!

Mussel Bed
Text: Ed Miller, Karen Couch and Jim Mason
Range Maps & Web Design: Jim Mason

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Great Plains Nature Center
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