If you've ever found one of these bizarre looking shells in any of Michigan's rivers you're probably wondering what on earth could have caused those peculiar holes in it.

Turns out, there's a very logical answer!

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Michigan resident Hannah Driver shared one of her recent finds on social media saying,

My boyfriend and I found this today in the grand river wondering if anyone in here could tell me if maybe this shell was used to make buttons back a very long time ago. I suspect maybe that could be it, you can see where multiple other holes were cut out along the edge. Any ideas? Who might have used it? Time period, anything really I’m very interested.

As it turns out Hannah was on the right track!

Lauren G/TSM
Lauren G/TSM

Clams vs. Mussels

Technically freshwater clams are mussels, but the two terms are used interchangeably in the pearl-button industry. According to documents from the Historical Society of Michigan, of the 45 mussel species in Michigan only 12 species have shells.

These shells are used for-- you guessed it-- button making!

Mussels in Michigan

Forget the auto industry and "furniture city", believe it or not there was once a booming pearl button industry in Michigan. Throughout Mitten the early 20th century was all about "clamming."

Grand Rapids man Martin D. Morris is credited with kickstarting the clamming industry in West Michigan. Morris heard of the successes other "clammers" had experienced with mussels from the Mississippi River and decided to bring mussels from the Grand River to have them inspected by an industry expert. This expert claimed the mussels from Michigan were "exactly as good as Mississippi clams" and that's all Morris needed to hear!

In 1907 Morris' Michigan Pearl Button Company was formed. Depending on the size of the shell, up to 20 button blanks could be produced per shell. Once the larger buttons were punched out of the shell, it was then passed on to the next worker who would punch smaller buttons out of the remaining material.

Michigan Clammers

And when I say the industry was booming, I mean booming!

According to Michigan Historical Society magazine by 1930 nearly 2,460 clamming licenses had been issued by the state. Entire families would come from across the U.S. to set up camp along places like the Grand and Muskegon Rivers and stay there all summer long catching mussels, often up to several hundred pounds per day.

Going rate of mussels varied from year to year, but clammers could earn between $35 to $100 per ton. Some clammers could make up to $1000 per season-- not too shabby!

End of an Era

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. By 1925, after years of non-stop harvesting and an increase in industrial pollution, the Michigan mussel population began to disappear. The Michigan Conservation Department even attempted to establish protections for the mussels and a 5-year moratorium on mussel harvesting began in 1944. By the time the moratorium was over plastic buttons had taken over the industry and clamming had concluded.

Have you ever found one of these shells in real life?

Items Pulled Out of the Grand River, Lansing

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