59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum



Priscilla Pearls

Imitation pearls

Hyannis, Massachusetts

Gift of Judith Bruguiere

Ralph H. Bodman started buying large quantities of herring from the Mattakessett Creek Fisheries in Edgartown in the early 1920s. He wasn't buying it for food, since most New Englanders had lost their taste for the bony fish. And he wasn't buying it for bait, though that was its most common use at the time.

The herring was being used to make imitation pearl jewelry.

Bodman's process required only a small portion of the small fish: their lustrous scales. The scales were ground and mixed with lacquer to make a coating material for glass beads. The beads were then strung into necklaces and bracelets, or made into pins, earrings, cuff links, and shirt studs. Manufactured in Hyannis at the Priscilla Laboratory and named "Priscilla Pearls," the jewelry was sold in shops around the country, through mail order, and at Lina Call's Priscilla Pearl Shop at the corner of Winter and North Water Streets in Edgartown.

In an oral history from 1982, Henry Smith (1920–1991) of Edgartown described garages near the Kelley House where vats were set up for the initial processing of the scales. One of his jobs as a boy during the Depression was preparing herring for Priscilla Pearls. "You would have a whetstone and you shape the knife to the back of the herring. All you made was two passes—one on each side—take one strip one way and throw the scales in the bucket, and flip the herring over and scale the other one and reach for another one." The remainder of the fish, useless to the buyer, was buried or used as free fertilizer by area farmers.