Monday, September 22, 2008

Oyster Houses

Oyster houses were just one of the many types of restaurants one could happen upon on the east coast of the United States. When Hudson came up the Hudson river in New Amsterdam (New York) even he commented on the abundance of oysters available. They have been enjoyed and written about ever since. One particular quote that I like comes from Eleanor Clark in her book The Oysters of Locmariaquer in 1959, "Obviously, if you don't love life, you can't enjoy an oyster." (taken from The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky, 2006)

Archaeology has uncovered vast oyster shell middens in the Chesapeake area and elsewhere. In New York some of these shells date to over 6000 years old! It was thought for years that Native Americans would eat oysters during time of famine and bad crops. That may be the case, but in order to satisfy the amount of food one deer it would take over 50,000 oysters!

It is much more likely that oysters were a delicacy for the Native Americans as well.

Now what does this have to do with Port Tobacco? Well, if you've been on any of our archaeological digs you would know that we come across hundreds of oyster shells every time we go out.

In the 19th century, the American people were enveloped in an oyster craze. In every town there were oyster parlors, oyster cellars, oyster saloons, oyster bars, oyster houses, oyster stalls and oyster lunchrooms. The oyster houses were very popular amongst the best class of people in the city. They were also popular amongst tourists because they knew they would get the choicest seafood, cooked and served in the best style.

There were several of these "oyster houses" in Port Tobacco. James A Swann owned and ran one sometime between 1860 and his death in 1871. There was an ad in the PT Times advertising his lot for sale along with the "oyster house". A question I have is if they were so popular in port towns and the shells don't decompose, why aren't we finding higher concentrations in small locales instead of scattered remains? Were they chewed up by plows when tobacco took over the town? Or have we just not found them yet?

Thanks again to Elsie who gave me the information on James A Swann.

- Peter


Anonymous said...

Weren't oyster shells used to make mortar, for roads, as an alkali in tanning, and lots of other things? Could an oyster house also be a cannery? Just thoughts....

Jim said...

Oyster shells served many purposes. Yes, they were used for road mettle. On Long Island, NY, where I'm from, residents could pay their road taxes with wagon loads of oyster and clam shells. In Maryland, people mined aboriginal shell middens for material that they burned to make lime mortar.
That said, oyster shell recovered from archaeological sites tends to occur along with bone waste and artifacts, suggesting that they are the remains of meals discarded with other household trash. An eatery...whether an oyster bar or a more general restaurant, ordinary, or tavern...likely will have more shells and kitchen trash than a simple dwelling occupied for the same period of time. A word of caution, however, on this last point; virtually every dwelling in a colonial seaport or county seat (and Port Tobacco was both)is likely to have functioned as an ordinary during certain times of the year.