Uses of Freshwater Mussels
by Robert E. Warren
ISM Associate Curator of Anthropology
How Have People Used Mussels?
People have harvested freshwater mussels in Illinois for at least 9,000
years. Prehistoric American Indians ate the soft tissues and used the
shells to make a variety of tools and ornaments. The historic Illinois
Indians used mussel shells to scrape maize kernels from cobs during
their July green-corn harvests.
Illustration: Prehistoric Native Americans harvesting mussels for food.
(ISM Archaic diorama).
Shell bird-effigy pendant from the Liverpool Lake site, Illinois.
Shell spoon (Plain pocketbook, Lampsilis cardium) from Dickson
Mounds site, Illinois.
in the late 1800s, mussel shells were prized as raw material for manufacturing
pearl buttons. Shells harvested from the Illinois River, the Mississippi
River, and other streams were shipped to local factories where disk-shaped
blanks were cut from the shells. The blanks were then drilled, polished,
and marketed as buttons. This industry thrived until about 1950, when
plastic replaced shell as the preferred raw material for buttons.
Illustration: Mussel harvester
displaying his catch. Mussels cling to hooks suspended from the crowfoot
shell (Yellow sandshell; Lampsilis teres) and button blanks.
new use for freshwater mussel shell—the manufacture of cultured pearls—emerged
in the 1960s. Shells harvested today are cut and polished to make small
spheres that can be implanted as nuclei in living oysters. The oyster
secretes a new layer of nacre around the mussel-shell nucleus, forming
a cultured pearl.
Illustration: Cultured pearl necklace and earrings. [CulturedPearlNecklace.psd]
a very detailed look at the mussel industry on the Illlinois River,
see our Harvesting the River