Oyster Shucking Knife

This tool was made and used in Crisfield, Maryland, a watermen’s community on the lower Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It was used to shuck (open) oysters, probably in one of Crisfield’s many oyster-packing houses in the early part of the 20th century.
Oysters in the shell can be sold to consumers, but most are processed—shucked, rinsed, and packed into containers—in packing houses located near the water. Oyster processing in Maryland began in Baltimore in the first half of the 19th century and expanded to locations around the bay and closer to the oyster beds after the Civil War. African American men and women comprised the majority of workers in these packing houses.
Oysters are bivalves, whose two shells are held together by a strong muscle. They grow on diverse hard surfaces, including each other, and their shells develop unique shapes and contours. Because of this, no two oysters are alike, a fact that has vexed would-be inventors of an oyster-opening machine. No machine has ever replaced the speed and accuracy of a skilled pair of human hands.
Shucking oysters takes strength and stamina. In the Chesapeake, the oyster season occurs in winter, and shuckers had to stand in damp, usually unheated rooms with concrete floors to work. They wore boots, gloves, and waterproof aprons over their clothing as protection against the cold mud that stuck to the oyster shells. Paid by the weight of the oyster meats they produced and not by the hour, shuckers learned to work quickly and accurately. Torn oyster meat not only lost its shape, it also lost its water content, its weight, and its value.
This knife is of the “cracking” type, named because the wider end was used for separating a cluster oysters or cracking off the tip of an oyster before the pointed end was inserted between the shells. Once a shucker separated the shells, he or she would deftly cut the muscle and drop the meat into a container. When the container was full, the shucker would take it to a scale to be weighed.
This knife was forged and honed into shape by a blacksmith, possibly John Stephens or Jack Swift, both Crisfield blacksmiths who made a variety of tools for use in the water business. The initials “JS” are stamped in the thick end of the knife.
Object Name
oyster knife
knife, oyster
date made
Swift, Jack
Physical Description
ferrous metal (overall material)
overall: 5 11/16 in x 1/2 in x 5/16 in; 14.44625 cm x 1.27 cm x .79375 cm
Place Made
United States: Maryland, Crisfield
Oyster processing began here in first half of 19th century
United States: Maryland, Baltimore
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
On the Water exhibit
The Development of the Industrial United States
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Publication title
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL

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