Freshwater mussels are commercially important. Beginning in 1891, mussels were harvested to manufacture shell buttons for clothing. Many towns along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers had button factories or buying stations where musselors sold their shells. The shell-button industry thrived until the 1940s, when plastic replaced shell as the preferred raw material for buttons. In the early days, no one attempted to manage or control the mussel harvest, and many of the mussel "beds" were severely depleted or destroyed.
Mussel harvesting resumed in the 1960s to provide the shell implant or "nucleus" for producing cultured pearls. Harvesting continues in the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries. Over seven-million pounds of mussels, valued at over six-million dollars, were harvested in 1990. No one knows if mussels can survive at current harvesting rates. Several states in the Midwest are developing new, uniform harvest regulations to better manage this important natural resource.
Above: "Mussel fishing on the Illinois River, Pearl, IL." (photo courtesy of Marshall County Historical Society).
Below Left: Drilled threeridge mussel (Amblema plicata) and button blanks (photo by R.E. Warren, Illinois State Museum).
Below Right: Cultured pearl necklace and earrings (photo by R.E. Warren, Illinois State Museum).