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ISM System :Introduction: Human Uses
Illinois Mussels
Life Cycle
Human Uses
Mussel Database
Photo Gallery
Identification Activity
Harvesting the River

Human 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).
Illustration: Shell bird-effigy pendant from the Liverpool Lake site, Illinois.
Illustration: Shell spoon (Plain pocketbook, Lampsilis cardium) from Dickson Mounds site, Illinois.

Beginning 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 bar. [MusselHarvest2.psd]
Illustration: Button shell (Yellow sandshell; Lampsilis teres) and button blanks.
Illustration: Pearl buttons.

A 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]

More a very detailed look at the mussel industry on the Illlinois River, see our Harvesting the River Web Exhibit.

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