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Uses of Mussels
Nature Bulletin No. 452-A   April 8, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The wampum of the early American Indians was beads made from the shells of freshwater mussels or saltwater clams. Each bead, highly polished and cylindrical in shape, was about a quarter of an inch long and either purple or white in color. Strung on strings or woven into patterns on a belt, wampum was used as money, as a symbol of authority, or as a sort of shorthand historical record which only certain interpreters could translate.

Each Mussel or Freshwater Clam has a soft oyster-like body enclosed between a pair of shells lined with mother-of-pearl. The mussel family reaches its greatest abundance and variety of kinds in the waters that drain into the Mississippi River. In Illinois streams and lakes, alone, there are several dozen species ranging in size from the little inch-long Peanut Shell up to the heavy 8 or 10 inch shell of a Washboard or Elephant Ear. Each kind has its own distinctive shape, color, and sculpturing on the outside -- some ridged, some warty and some smooth. Each spends its life on the bottom of some river, creek or lake where it feeds on the microscopic life and debris that it strains out of the water. Mussels are slow-moving, but as infants they hitch rides by spending two or three weeks as parasites attached to the gills or fins of a fish.

Since 1891, the pearl button industry has been centered at Muscatine, Iowa, close to the large rivers that yield the best button shells. To make good quality buttons, the nacre or mother-of-pearl should be white, preferably iridescent, and neither brittle nor chalky. The shell should be large enough to furnish several button blanks and the thicker the better. Those found in lakes and ponds, called Papershells or Floaters, have shells that are too thin. Some of the preferred kinds for buttons are the Mucket, Pocketbook, Three-ridge, Pimpleback, Heelsplitter and Buckhorn.

At the factories, the shells are sorted according to kind and size, then soaked in water for a week. The blanks are cut by high speed tubular saws cooled by a stream of water. After grinding both sides of a blank, a finishing machine rounds the edges, carves out the center and drills the 2 or 4 holes. Between these operations they are smoothed by tumbling in barrels with water and pumice. Finally, they are polished in acid, washed, and fastened on cards.

Owing to the gradual exhaustion of the mussel beds in our rivers and the increased use of other materials for buttons, "clamming" has become less and less profitable. Clamming is usually a part-time job for a riverman, commercial fisherman or farmer working alone. Mostly, he uses clam bars dragged down the river behind a small boat, each bar with about two dozen strings of 4-pronged hooks. When a prong of a hook falls between the halves of a partly open mussel, it instantly closes on the hook and hangs on until lifted into the boat. At the end of the day he steams the catch in a tank to remove the bodies from the shells. Each soft body is always looked over hopefully. It just might happen to hide the pearl he has been dreaming about -- a pearl so fine and so big that it would be worth thousands of dollars.

And that aint wampum.

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