A Heritage in Oysters

Oysters helped build communities around Chesapeake Bay. For generations, watermen and their families made a living from the local waters. Scratch the surface of places like Crisfield, Cambridge, Oxford, St. Michaels, Galesville, Solomons, or Smith Island, Maryland, and you’ll find a heritage in oysters. No church supper, community festival, or Thanksgiving feast was complete without oysters—stewed, fried, steamed, raw, or baked into a pie.



Oyster Champion

The U.S. National Oyster Shucking Championship is held in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, every October. Ruth Smith won the contest in 1981.

Photograph by John Gibbs

Courtesy of the Calvert Marine Museum


Photograph by Marion Warren, © M. E. Warren Photography, LLC

A Chesapeake Icon

A law passed in 1865 still helps skipjacks—one-masted, sailing oyster boats—survive today. The law prohibits the use of dredges—the most efficient oyster harvesting gear—on an engine-powered vessel. Since skipjacks rely on the wind, they can use dredges. But because of the severe decline of oysters in the bay, very few skipjacks have been used in the fishery since the 1990s.


Oyster Boats in the City

Chesapeake working craft crowded Baltimore Harbor, about 1900.


Lent by the Calvert Marine Museum

Shipping Barrel, early 1900s

Oyster packers used specially designed barrels for shipping oyster meats by rail or steamboat. This barrel contains two galvanized, reusable metal cans that were filled with oyster meats. With ice loaded on top, the cedar-sided barrel kept the oysters fresh during transport.


Fine Fresh Oysters Every Day

Oysters were all the rage in the late 1800s. People who craved the cool, smooth meats that tasted of the sea devoured tons of the shellfish in oyster parlors, saloons, bars, and restaurants. Baltimore’s packers used trade cards to advertise their oysters, and used popular images of the day, filled with whimsy, exaggeration, and stereotyping.


Oyster Plates and Fork

Affluent consumers could enjoy six tasty oysters artfully displayed on special china oyster plates. Most oyster plates were manufactured between 1870 and 1920. These are from a set of twelve.

Gift of Mrs. Franklin Chase


Gift of August Mencken

The Sage’s Oyster Fork

The fashion for eating raw oysters diminished in the early 1900s, largely due to health scares linked to oyster consumption. But true oyster enthusiasts continued to indulge their passion for the bay’s succulent bivalves. This oyster fork, made in Baltimore in the 1920s, was used by the “Sage of Baltimore,” journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken.

The largest genuine Maryland oyster—the veritable bivalve of the Chesapeake...is as large as your open hand. A magnificent, matchless reptile! Hard to swallow? Dangerous? Perhaps to the novice, the dastard. But to the veteran of the raw bar, the man of trained and lusty esophagus, a thing of prolonged and kaleidoscopic flavors, a slow sipping saturnalia, a delirium of joy!
—H. L. Mencken, 1913


Oysters and the Pure Food Laws

Outbreaks of typhoid fever and other illnesses persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass Pure Food Laws in 1906. Several of the new regulations were aimed at the oyster industry. The laws regulated oyster beds, packing houses, shellfish sources, shipping methods, and labeling.

To restore public confidence, the oyster industry publicized the sanitary conditions under which oysters were handled and the high standards used in packing fresh oyster meats. Oyster tins were stamped with packers’ certification numbers and advertised the oysters inside as fresh, pure, healthful, and (of course) delicious.

Baltimore Oyster Tins

J. D. Groves & Co., “Pride of the Chesapeake” Brand

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