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.
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