My grandmother worked in a button factory in Muskegon, Michigan, to support her family during hard times. From all reports, it was toxic, noxious work when buttons started to be made out of plastic. But that was the new and divergent way, back in the last 1930s. Before that...it was something else entirely.
The reason buttons were made in West Michigan at all has to do with freshwater clams. They're rare these days for a reason. And it's not all zebra mussels. A different invasive species wiped out the bivalves of old.
I've recently started to be fascinated with clams and mussels. They're quiet, unassuming creatures that keep to their own. And when they disappear or endure massive assault, not a lot of people seem to hear them scream. But they're out there, they're critical to their environments, and they're now just barely clinging to life.
Back in the early 1900s, freshwater clams were prized for their thick, tough shells and their occasional pearls. And by 1908 clammers were raking the river bottoms of West Michigan, collecting 60,000 tons of clams annually. It was an insanely lucrative industry at the time...and there were no regulations dictating how much could be harvested. Anyway...if there was, it would have been ignored.
Clamming was a fierce business. Competition was so intense clammers would stock their boats with cannons to blast competitors out of the water. BOOM.
Just a few miles from where I'm sitting, clammers would rake the river bottoms and pull clams out by the tens of thousands. Individual clams that had lived in the waters and developed for a hundred years were pulled out, hollowed out, eaten and their shells drilled into a dozen buttons.
It shouldn't be too surprising that they're virtually gone. The arrival of the zebra mussel kneecapped many of the remaining native freshwater bivalves.
I remember swimming in Lake Michigan as a child around the late 1970s to early 1980s...and every once in a while...every once in a while I'd step on a white rounded shell. A fresh water clam. I'd pull it up, inspect it, and then chuck it as far as I could out into the lake. I haven't experienced that in decades.
The species that were pulled up were: Hicory Nut, Pimple Back, Maple Leaf, Three Ridge, Muckett, Pocketbook, Black Sand Shell.
These days it's illegal to have in your possession, or ATTEMPT to have in your possession, a Michigan bivalve of any sort...including the shell, or a PIECE Of a shell. The species was hunted to near extinction to the point where the state wanted to shut down all demand for the species. If not for the invasion of exotic unionid species like zebra and quagga mussels, native mollusks might have made a go of some kind of come back. Some still eke out a living in the rivers. But likely never again in the numbers they once enjoyed.