Oysters: From Rags to Riches

Today, it’s hard to find an oyster for less than $2 a pop, but until the turn of the 20th century, oysters were so plentiful in New York, rich and poor alike enjoyed them.  New Yorkers ate them raw, pickled, stewed, baked, roasted, and fried.  They were so abundant, their shells were used to pave streets (hence the name Pearl Street), as fertilizer, and as a cement-like substance used in construction.

A. B. Waud. Oyster Stands in Fulton Market, 1870. South Street Seaport Museum, Print Collection.

With over 350 square miles of oyster beds, oysters were always popular in the Harbor, dating back to the era of the Lenape Indians.  However, they weren’t  an unlimited resource–conservation efforts began in the mid 1600s, precipitated by fear of overfishing, and as with many disputes over a natural resource, tensions occasionally ran high.  The “Oyster Wars” of the 19th century saw bitter rivalries over fishing beds.  The rivalry was most heated between New Jersey and Staten Island fishermen, with arguments lasting into the 1890s.

Oyster Markets Near Christopher Street, 1898. Museum of the City of New York, 41.62.20.

Oystering in New York had its heyday from 1880 until about 1910, with “boat stores” popping up along the shore line.  From these “boat stores,” oysters would be carted off to various parts of the city to be sold; seemingly, you could find them anywhere, the Fulton Fish Market, restaurants, saloons, one’s own kitchen, and food carts throughout the city (they were sold on street corners, much as hot dogs are today).

Thomas H. McAllister. [Oyster Stand], ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.10037.

Berenice Abbott. Oyster Houses, 1937. Museum of the City of New York, 89.2.1.209.

At its peak, roughly 765 million oysters passed through “Oyster Row,” generating millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.   However, rapid industrialization and urbanization in the late 19thcentury polluted many of the beds in the New York area, causing a decline in numbers.  Furthermore, several outbreaks of typhoid fever and cholera were linked to polluted oyster beds, forcing the City Health Commissioner to close all oyster beds in the New York Harbor area in 1927.

Advertisement for F. T. Braman, ca. 1900. South Street Seaport Museum, Trade Card Collection, X2005.25.14.

Although it disappeared for a few decades, oystering is popping up again in and around New York.  The New York Harbor School and other New York organizations and government agencies are making efforts to restore the oyster population in New York Harbor.  For more about these efforts, come down to the South Street Seaport Museum this Thursday evening (October 18, 2012) for the premier of Shell Shocked, a new documentary film detailing the efforts to restore the city’s oyster population.

2 responses to “Oysters: From Rags to Riches

  1. Were the ‘Oyster Wars’ battled through dance?

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