September 25, 2012

Oyster Town: 1800 to Now

Julia Simons

Julia Simons

Data Specialist, Maryland Food System Map Project

Center for a Livable Future

Gibbs Packing Co. Cannery, 1883, in Cannery Row (Baltimore)

Marylanders rejoice! Oyster harvesting season begins on October 1, and the upcoming months will have numerous restaurants featuring fresh, local oysters on their menus. Whether you like oyster stew, Oysters Rockefeller, fried oysters, or plain old oysters on the half shell, make sure to enjoy the bounty of the upcoming season.

Maryland has had a long, rich history of harvesting its Chesapeake Bay oysters, with Baltimore at the center of oyster processing in the Chesapeake Bay region. In fact, the word “Chesapeake” comes from the Algonquin word “Chesipiook,” which translates to “Great Shellfish Bay.” There’s a wealth of information about Baltimore’s oyster processing history, along with other food industries like brewing, sugar, meat processing, and coffee, at the Center’s recently developed Baltimore Food History Map.

Founded in 1848, and expanding to Baltimore in 1865, Platt & Co. supplied oysters to gold miners in California.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, Baltimore was a hotspot for canning foods, and oysters were one of the most-processed products, with fruits and vegetables supplementing during the spring and summer months. In the 1820s, Baltimore became the first city to can oysters. (Because oysters are known for their high protein and calcium contents, Baltimore writer H. L. Mencken referred to the Chesapeake Bay as an “immense protein factory.”) Oyster production peaked in the mid-1880s with around 14 million bushels of oysters harvested from the Bay, compared to current harvest levels at less than 1 million bushels annually. Around the mid-1880s, Maryland employed 20 percent of fishery workers in the entire U.S. Along with the canneries came side industries that constructed cans, built machines used in canning, and transported raw products for canning. Canning of all kinds of products was a major industry in Baltimore from the early-1800s through the mid-1950s, when canneries closed their doors and moved their operations to other parts of the country and the world.

On a sadder side note, child labor was rampant in the 1800s, and children as young as 7 or 8 were commonly seen working alongside other members of their families in the canneries. This lasted until the early 1900s, when federal child labor laws were tightened.

The Baltimore Food History Map is part of the Center’s Maryland Food System Map Project, which collects and maps out data on Maryland’s food system from production to consumption. We have partnered on this project with the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which has a fascinating, hands-on exhibit on Baltimore’s canning industry.

Photos: Baltimore Museum of Industry
Many thanks to Dave Love for extra oyster facts.



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