Pearl Clamming and Pearl Button Clamming on the upper Mississippi River

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At the beginning of the 20th century and before, pearl clamming and pearl button clamming were big business on the upper Mississippi River. Whole families would spend their summers at the clamming camps.

But just exactly how did they get the clams?

Clams on the bottom of the river are stuck in the sand with their shells slightly open facing the current of the water to catch their food.

If a hook enters the clam the clam would shut tightly and be hauled into the boat.

Clamming Hooks and Tools

Two rows of four pronged crowfoot hooks, like in this photo, were dragged along the river bottom for this method of clamming on the upper Mississippi in 1897.

The clamming john boats also had a “mule,” or underwater sail to provide power for the boat.

Lowered into the river at the stern of the boat, the broad surface at right angles to the current, it would slowly force the boat downstream in spite of the drag on the bottom.

Guide lines turned the “mule” to steer the boat.

Top of clamming boat model

All sorts of clams were used in button making.

Shell Display Muscatine Art Center

Pearl Clamming Camps

Diorama of a Pearl Clamming Camp

Entire families would occupy the clamming camps and help steam the shells.

Into the cookers would go a small amount of water and the clams..then covered with burlap.

After 20 minutes the clams opened readily. When open, they were moved to sorting tables and searched for the occasional pearl.

Mississippi pearls were sold by the pound to buyers who would make the rounds of the camps.

Since the real value of the day was the shells themselves for button making, if careful search for pearls wasn't made...pearls were left undiscovered in the clam meat which was fed to the pigs. In other words, during pearl clamming, pearls sometimes were cast before swine.

Mississippi River Pearl and Carved Mother of Pearl Items.

Cleaned shells were taken by railroad or barges to the cutting factories.

Many people cut buttons in their basements for extra cash.

See an old fashioned pearl button cutting factory frozen in time for almost 50 years.

Shell with Button Blanks Cut Out--Muscatine Art Center

Pearl Buttons on Cards

The final process involved sewing the buttons on cards for the retail market. Ladies would sometimes get one penny per card for sewing the buttons on.

Local people still have stories to tell about this job.

Button Display Muscatine Art Center

Button Display Muscatine Art Center

During the 1970's clamming on the Mississippi River was once again revived as the shells were shipped to countries as Japan for shell beads used to start cultured pearls.

Modern day clamming volume no where reached what was harvested around the turn of the century, however.

Reported catches of licensed clammers from 1976-1980's was less than 300 tons annually.

Thank You Muscatine Art Center

Thank you to Muscatine Art Center for letting me use photos of their pearl button exhibit.

Muscatine is very fortunate to have this gracious old home for a free museum and art center at 1314 Mulberry Street. It’s like stepping back in time as it was around the turn of the century all the frills and luxuries.

On permanent display is a bed used in the White House by Susan Ford, period furniture and art by famous artists.

Purchase clamming prints at River's Edge Gallery

Prints pertaining to clamming in Muscatine, Iowa, on the Mississippi River, such as the one above, can be purchased at River's Edge Gallery at 216 West 3rd Street in Muscatine. Phone: 563-263-3176

This is a must see stop for anyone living in or visiting Muscatine.

Larry and Sue Koehrsen, owners, have graciously filled all three floors of this antique mansion...even the huge walk-in attic...with lovely painting and prints by both local artists and others.

Visit River's Edge Gallery for all your framing needs.

Modern Pearl Farm

and on this page is a link to another page where you can see pearls still in the shells, right after taking the shell from the pond...great stuff to see!


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