Baltimore: Oyster City

Canning—preserving food by boiling it in cans or jars—was developed in France in the early 1800s. By the 1840s, oyster canning was an established industry in Baltimore. The oyster beds nearby, and the city’s growing population of workers and rail connections, made Baltimore the center of canning in the country. By 1870, there were more than 100 packing houses in the city.


Baltimore lay very near the immense protein factory of Chesapeake Bay, and out of the bay it ate divinely.
—H. L. Mencken, Happy Days, 1940


Oysters for Sale

Oysters were for sale even at the J. M. Karmany meat market in the small town of Mankato, Minnesota, in 1881.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society


Cove Oysters

Thomas Kensett, an Englishman, began canning food in New York in the 1810s. His son and namesake was one of the first to process oysters in Baltimore, beginning in 1849. “Cove” on the label refers to Cove Street, a lane in Baltimore where several oyster houses were located.


Courtesy of The Maryland Historical Society

Cannery Workers

Thousands of people worked in Baltimore’s canneries, packing oysters in winter and fruits and vegetables in summer. Many immigrants, especially women from Eastern Europe, worked opening oysters. In this 1914 image they are opening, or “shucking,” steamed oysters, a process that loosened the oyster muscle and separated the shells, making the work less difficult.


Oyster Shuckers on the Shore

After the Civil War, many African Americans found work in the Chesapeake seafood industries. Packing houses in small communities such as Crisfield, on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, primarily employed African American women as oyster shuckers. In this 1891 image, the workers are atop the detritus of their handiwork—a pile of oyster shells.

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration


An oyster house surrounded by shells in Crisfield, Maryland, 1891

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration


Oyster Knife

This oyster shucking knife was made by a blacksmith and used in the area of Crisfield, Maryland, probably in the early 1900s.