On the Water

Commercial Fishers: Chesapeake Oysters

Chesapeake Bay’s bounty of fish and shellfish amazed and delighted early travelers. Oysters were first among the bay’s wonders, described as “very large and delicate in taste” and thriving in “whole banks and beds.”

Out of the shell, oysters quickly go bad. Until the 1800s, most Chesapeake oysters were harvested for local consumption. By the mid-1800s, shucked oysters could be packed in ice or canned for shipment to distant markets. As American cities grew, demand for oysters surged, and Chesapeake oysters found ready markets in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minneapolis, and points west.

The Bay

From its headwaters in New York State to its mouth near Norfolk, Virginia, the Chesapeake watershed covers some 64,000 square miles. Fresh water from many tidal rivers, including the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the James, mixes with the salty Atlantic around Norfolk to produce the largest and most productive estuary in the country.

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 Shucking Knife [1900]
Oyster Shucking Knife

Oyster Knife

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

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.

Oyster Tin, Heyser’s Oysters [1920-1930]
Oyster Tin, Heyser’s Oysters

Baltimore Oyster Tins

Left to right:

Heyser’s Brand

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

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D. E. Foote & Co., Inc.

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Tongers, Dredgers, and the Oyster Police

In the mid-1800s, Chesapeake watermen hauled in millions of bushels of oysters to meet the national demand. The harvest peaked in the 1884-85 season, when 15 million bushels were taken from the bay.

Competition among oystermen was fierce. Tongers used long-handled tongs to pry oysters from the bottom a few at a time. They were up against much larger vessels that used the most efficient harvesting gear available—dredges. Separate oyster grounds were designated for tongers and dredgers. Yet by 1868, the situation had become so dangerous that Maryland organized the Oyster Police to keep the peace on the oyster grounds.

Oyster Pirates

In the dark of night, dredgers were known to sneak onto tonging grounds to harvest oysters. Dredgers could make short work of oysters in shallow tonging areas.

From “The Oyster War in Chesapeake Bay,” Harper’s Weekly, March 1, 1884

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Favorite bed for small boats—Gathering and dressing oysters under difficulties

From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 8, 1879

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Ship Model, Chesapeake Bay Log Canoe [1880]
Ship Model, Chesapeake Bay Log Canoe

Gift of T. B. Ferguson

Log Canoe, late 1800s

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In shallow waters, oystermen worked out of small boats, including canoes built of logs hollowed out and pinned together lengthwise. Chesapeake watermen used log canoes well into the 20th century.

This model is rigged with hand tongs. The tonger lowers the baskets into the water and pulls the handles apart. Using a raking motion, he works them back together until the baskets are filled. He then lifts the catch to the surface, hand-over-hand, and swings the baskets aboard. Imagine doing this in a rocking boat in the middle of winter, and you’ll know why oyster tonging was a dangerous occupation.

Ship Model, Bugeye Lillie Sterling [1885]
Ship Model, Bugeye Lillie Sterling

Bugeye Lillie Sterling

Built by E. James Tull

Pocomoke City, Maryland, 1885

Gift of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries

Bugeye Lillie Sterling

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First built in the 1860s, bugeyes were unique to the Chesapeake. They were large, decked-over versions of log canoes. They ranged in length from 30 to 65 feet and carried three sails on two masts. Worked by a captain and crew of six, bugeyes were used for dredging oysters in winter and hauling produce in summer.

Ship Model, Skipjack Gertrude Wands [1968]
Ship Model, Skipjack Gertrude Wands

Skipjack Gertrude Wands

Built by John Branford

Eastern Shore of Maryland, 1899

Skipjack Gertrude Wands

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First built in the late 1800s, skipjacks—one-masted, V-bottom vessels—gradually replaced bugeyes in the oyster dredging fleet. Their simple rig and hull design proved easier to build, operate, and maintain. Like other watercraft, some skipjacks were built in established shipyards, but many more were built by carpenters and watermen in small communities around the bay. This dredge boat was named for a little girl who lived in the community of Inverness.

What Happened to Chesapeake Oysters?

Harvests of Chesapeake oysters declined throughout the 1900s. Despite limits on harvests and programs to seed oyster beds, the resource never rebounded. Two diseases—MSX and Dermo—continue to decimate the small remaining oyster populations. Most experts agree that a combination of factors—overharvesting, silting, pollution, and disease—contributed to the virtual disappearance of the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster bounty. Without oysters, many watermen’s communities around the bay have also suffered.

Lent by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Afterlife of an Oyster Dredger

When there aren’t enough oysters to keep a skipjack in business, a waterman’s mind can take a creative turn. This canvasback decoy was carved from the mast of the venerable oyster sloop Rebecca T. Ruark, built in 1886. Made in June 2000, it is one of 82 ducks carved by Charles Jobes of Havre de Grace, Maryland, from Rebecca’s mast.