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.
During the summer of 1910, the Upper Mississippi River was at an unprecedented low water level. Clamming that year also was unprecedented.
“The tendency of the river is to go to the clam,” said the Dispatch “and for that reason little effort on the part of the clam hunter is necessary.” The paper speculated that there was twice as much clamming that year as in the year prior. Some people were even making their living harvesting clams.
“One of the favorite resorts of the clammers is the head of the rapids between Port Byron and LeClaire, Iowa,” said the newspaper.
The real reason for people to harvest clams at that time was for the pearls often found inside them. “These freshwater pearls have natural luster and beauty that renders them of great value,” said the Dispatch. “So many pearls have been found during the ‘boiling’ of this year’s record-breaking clam crop that there are few residents in Port Byron who aren’t now proud possessors of handsome pearl rings.”
The pearls being found in the Port Byron clams were valued between $20 and $80 each. They were seldom perfectly round. The rounder pearls bought a good price.
The river was so low that people could go into the water at a depth not much greater than the height of an average man. Then, instead of using the clawed hook and other rigging the professional clammers used, men would go out in their boats, jump in the water and use their hands to remove the clams from the river bottom, scooping them into the boat. To people on land it looked like a fleet of empty rowboats in the river as many men were submerged.
After collecting the clams, they were boiled. The hot water opened the clam shells and caused the pearls to become visible. Professional clammers generally gathered the clams for a considerable period and set aside a day for extensive boiling.
When the gathering of Mississippi River pearls was a pastime, men were willing to dispose of their findings with local jewelers. That changed when it was found that Tiffany’s and other places in the eastern market were willing to pay much more.
“The estimate is that 75 clammers are working the Port Byron beds today, 35 more than were engaged in the same occupation a year ago,” said the Dispatch.
Shells used to make buttons were going for $28 a ton until the low water bought the price down to $11 per ton in 1910.
More often than pearls, clammers found nuggets or baroques. Baroques were irregularly shaped pearls that could be used for inexpensive jewelry. Slugs were often small and not as smooth or as colorful as baroques. But even slugs could be sold for $3.50 to $9 an ounce. About every 100 clams had a slug.
Gus Mensinger, Camanche said he found a pearl that he sold for $2,000.
A pearl was judged on the bases of luster, color, size, shape, surface and iridescence. You could improve the quality of a pearl by washing and buffing it. An all-white effect was sought by jewelers.
Today most pearls come from third-world countries. More then 35 species of pearl mussels have been lost to extinction.
Years ago, a jeweler gave me seven pearls from the river. Several are baroque, one is round, some are slugs and one is a wing. Wings were often made into earrings. I bought an antique ring with five river pearls shaped like petals. The ring resembles a flower with a sapphire int the center.
Suggested reading: “The Pearl” by John Steinbeck.