Illinois State Museum, Springfield

Harvesting the River: Pearl Buttons

Freshwater mussels have lived in North America since the Age of the Dinosaurs—more than 200 million years. They’re ecologically important—cleaning the water in our streams and lakes and providing food for many species. American Indians gathered mussels for food and used shells for tools and ornaments. In the 1890s, a German immigrant invented a new use for mussels that launched an industry—pearl buttons.

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