Sunday, April 25, 2010

Oyster Cellars

New York Oyster Cellars of the 1800’s

From Mark Kurlansky’s “When the Oyster was Their World”, New York Times, ‘City Lore’, June 24, 2001.

The favorite way of eating oysters in New York and the Northeast was ‘raw’. In 19th century New York, oysters were opened and served raw with nothing but pepper, salt, lemon or vinegar. They were offered in bars, at street markets, in hotels and street side stands.

The oyster cellar became in New York an institution as the papaya bar, the earliest record of one is 1783 when one opened on Broad Street. These cellars were usually a few steps below street level and advertised with an oyster balloon by the stairwell. These balloons, red muslin globes, were lighted at night, usually until very late.

In 1842 when Charles Dickens, author of the phrase “solitary as an oyster” , visited New York he seemed unimpressed by the food, including a dozen-course feast in his honor at ‘Delmonico’s ‘ that began with oysters. But in spite of his assertion that Americans ate “piles of indigestible matter” ( strong language from a man whose wife made ‘suet dumplings’), he was taken with New York’s oyster cellars.

Most of the cellars were known for their rough clientele, though there were exceptions, like ‘Downing’s’ on Broad Street, which catered bankers. Dickens went to the five Points, the infamous slum near Worth and Baxter Streets, where the cellars were interspersed with sleazy dance halls.

George C Foster, a reporter for the New York Tribune w described oyster cellars in his 150 book, “New York by Gaslight” wrote, “the women of course, are all of the same kind, but among the men you would find , if you looked curiously, reverend judges and juvenile delinquents, pious and devout hypocrites and undisguised libertines and debauches”.

Down a small set of stairs from the street would be a swinging saloon door leading to a room with a bar at one end and booths at the other. Sometimes private rooms were available in the back. After mid-century the d├ęcor started to become gaudier, with ornate light fixtures and red velour curtains, sometimes, vaguely erotic paintings on the walls.

In the Mid 19th century, Canal Street was a center for oyster cellars and a widely adopted Canal Street Plan was ‘all you can eat for 6 cents’. It was rumored that cellars proprietors preserved profits by slipping a ‘bad’ oyster to customers who were eating too many. Still, customers usually ate several dozen at a 6 cent sitting, making the millions od dollars worth of oysters, $6 million in 1850 alone, according to Michael & Arian Batterberrys “On the Town in New York”, all the more impressive.

Diamond Jim Brady, the legendary New York gourmand, famously began his pretheater dinner with three dozen oysters. New York oysters were not big enough for him and he had huge ‘Lynnhaven’ oysters specially ordered from Maryland.

In the mid 19th century, floating oyster markets were built that would tie up along the Hudson and East Rivers. By the 1880’s these barges had become two stories high with elaborate ornaments.

Oyster cellers vanished late in the century when New York beds were vanishing from overuse and pollution. In 1920’s, outbreaks of typhoid fever were linked to New York oysters and in 1927 New York Harbor and the waters around Staten Island were closed to oystering.

The August 21, 1819 issue of the Dover, Delaware, American Watchman newspaper has this article; Deposits at the Savings Bank in New York City, on Saturday evening amounted to $4076 and the number of depositors were 121. The largest deposit of $1800 was made by a ‘free black’ woman who keeps an oyster cellar in downtown.

Another Interesting Adventure In Sussex County

Transcribed From Delaware State Reporter: March 7, 1854:
If examined by a microscope, the exterior of an oyster shell there will be found a large continent, as it might be called, home of millions of insects that wander with great liberty over its surface.
Each of these insects is the owner of a house or cavern which it forms by burrowing into the solid shell. Besides these minute members of the animal kingdom, the vegetable tribes are represented by a luxurious growth of plants springing up over the entire shell. These are of every variety of forms and colors, look alikes of miniature trees, shrubs and flowers of the most beautiful descriptions.
In order to examine them properly, the oyster shell should be placed in a glass container of clear sea water.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Contents of a Normal Sussex County Boy's Pockets in 1855

From the Delaware State Reporter newspaper, issue 2 March 1855, which has said a boy is very miscellaneous in his habits and when they emptied Master Smith's pockets the other day, they found the contents to consist of these articles; sixteen marbles, one spin top, an oyster shell, two chips of a brick, one doughnut, part of a curry comb, a paint brush, three wax ends, a handful of corks, a chisel, two knives, both broken, a skate strap, three buckles and a dog eared spelling primer.
Everything seems normal except the oyster shell and the bet is that he carried it to drink water out of a deep well or fresh spring. Whats your best bet?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Crab and Oyster Stories, Eastern Shore Type.

You have had your Fish Story's,so how about some Crab and Oyster Story's, Unordinary Everyday Stories.

All You Ever Need To Know About Oysters

On the coast of Florida, abounding in oysters and crabs, these two marine nations carry on hostilities against each other in a manner never noticed in any other place. The oysters actually feed on the spawn or young of the crab, by closing on them as they pass and detaining them until the are digested. and the old crabs, as if in revenge for the murder of their offspring frequently regale themselves on young oysters. But the crab in plucking out the oyster from the shell is frequently himself caught and if the oyster be large and strong enough the crab is detained by the claw until he parts with it or otherwise perishes. Now, when the oyster has attained full growth and strength. a crab is compelled to devise stratagem, unparalleled, and which I would have put no faith had I not been an eye witness of the fact several times. The oyster lying as usual with his shell wide open, the crab approaches with a pebble in one of its claws, then suddenly thrust the pebble into the mouth of the oyster which prevents its shell to fully shut closed. With great 'sang froid' avails himself of his enemy's embarrassment and with his claws nicks out the meat of the oyster from between the distended shell.
I have heard also that in the bay of Apalachi the racoons came down in great numbers to the bayside at low water and finding the oyster open on the beach would with a sudden jerk of a paw, wipe the meat from the shell very adroitly before the poor oyster had time to close up on him. The racoons are so fond of this meal that they will wade out some distance from shore in pursuit of their prey. Here it has happened, either because of the toughness of the oyster or the slowness of the racoon, close down on his paw. When this happens he inevitably perishes for the oyster is fixed fast to it bed below and as the animal struggles the oyster holds fast with all its force, and the tide rises and the racoon is drowned. An 1811 story.


There are at least 2000 square miles, that's 1,580,000 acres of natural oyster beds within the jurisdiction of the state of Virginia. Allowing for 1/8 of a bushel to each square rod of these beds, remember a square rod is equal to 30-1/4 square yards, and allowing the quantity of oysters therein or thereon, it may be reckoned that there be 784,000,000 bushels.
Oysters are reproduced at a rapid rate as the oyster is immensely prolific. Each mother of the family furnishes, every year, generally during the month of May, enough spawn to give birth to 3 million infants. Under favorable conditions, it takes about three years for these new embryo oysters to obtain an edible size. An 1857 story

The Abbe Freshon, a French Priest, was supposed to be the greatest glutton at Oysters in existence. A considerable bet was made that a Dutch Captain of a trading sailing vessel could surpass him.
At the Roche de Concafe, at Paris, a breakfast was ordered up where the bet was to be decided.
The Abbe ate one hundred and thirty eight dozen, some 1656 oysters, and then gave in. The Dutchman did not relax until he had eaten one hundred and eighty six dozen, 3383 oysters, with which he drank eight bottles of white wine. Then spying a well cooked fowl, untouched, he ate it all and drank two other bottles of wine. An 1817 story.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Delaware 145 Years Ago

Description: A Voice From Delaware: How the State of Delaware Appeared in 1865:

Date: September 21 1865

Newspaper published in: Boston, Mass.

Source: newspaper

Page/Column: Letter To The Editor

My communication to your worthy paper a few weeks ago seems to have been well read in the Eastern States since I have received numerous letters of inquires. I hope to address these inquiries through your paper, with your kind permission.

First, It is my belief 'slavery' existing in the Southern States has forced emigration into the Northern ones.

Then, for Delaware, we have the mildness of climate, acres of level and fertile soil, light and free of rocks and stone, where one horse can do the labor of two, and less the wear and tear of farm implements. It is said the horses or oxen are not even shod for farm work.

The production of nature abounds in rich profusion, peaches, apples, pears, grapes, plums, all kinds of fruits and berries grow to perfection. In fact, all the small cereals, corn, potatoes, both round and sweet, are produced here equal to any other place. Growers in the North have felt that grapes will not grow well here, and this is a mistake.

Clover, Timothy, hard and orchard, as well as Hungarian flourish here.

The people are kind and hospitable and are pleased to have industrious, enterprising men come along to help develop and improve the resources of this land.

There is a system of common schools here, inaugurated some thirty years age by the venerable Judge Willard Hall of Connecticut, who migrated in early life to Delaware, and is now Judge of the United States District Court of Delaware.

There be an attempt to build up a Congregational Church at Canterbury, but owing to the few members and their limited means, they have not yet erected a house of worship. They call on the wealthy Congregationalist of the East to help and ask for contributions be sent to Deacon A. H. Bryan, formerly of Buffalo, who is at Canterbury. So let it be.

The facilities for market are the Delaware Bay and her tributaries, as well as the Chesapeake, and the Delaware Railroad which runs through the whole state, north to south, now to Salisbury, Maryland, head of the Wicomico River to the Chesapeake. This railroad soon with extend to Norfolk, Virginia it is said to connect to all southern cities.

The price of Delaware land varies with location and improvements. Along the railroad the best farm land can be bought for $75 to $100 per acre. The older, worn out farms,with poor buildings,a good distance from the rivers and railroad sell for $10 to $20 per acre. All farms have plenty of timber, but old houses and barns.

The above, I believe, is a birds eye view of things in the lower counties, where there is room for enterprise and industry.

Written from Canterbury, Delaware, September 13, 1865 by A. P. Osmond, a produce broker, originally from Mercer county Pennsylvania. He died at age 84, April 1870

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

First it was pirates, then the smugglers and river pilots.

Lewes, Del., Jan., 22, 1883;

This quaint little town is fast regaining the unenviable notoriety is once possessed as a haunt for smugglers. for some time after the exposure of 1878, when several of the most daring evaders of the revenue laws were captured with contraband goods in their possession, the risky traffic was totally abandoned, owing to the pressure of a number of secret service detectives. The withdrawal of these officers, however, was signalized by an immediate revival of the nefarious business, which has continued without interruption up to the present day.
The existence in Lewes of an organized band of smugglers is an open secret throughout that portion of the Peninsula, yet for fully four years not the slightest effort has been made by the government official to break it up. While the illicit trade is nor conducted on a scale so extensive as that practiced in the palmier days of smuggling, nevertheless fully thirty thousand dollars worth of cigars and rum are annually loaded at the Breakwater without the knowledge of the resident Deputy Collector of Customs, Dr. Burton.
There is probably no town on the coast that possesses such favorable facilities for successful smuggling as does Lewes. Situated within a short distance of Cape Henlopen, and directly in the beaten track of navigation and possessing a harbor of unequaled safety, it has become the favorite stopping place for sailing vessels, especially for those returning from southern ports. It is a conspicuous fact that traders of this character rarely, if ever, pass Lewes on their inward passage without putting in. However flimsy the excuse for stopping may sometimes appear, the stop is made, and invariably extended until after dark. If the vessel has smuggled goods on board this fact is conveyed to the band at Lewes by means of a signal and at night they are quietly landed and stowed away while the unconscious Revenue collector is enjoying his slumbers. Such is the common talk of the town folks.
It has not been many days since a leading spirit in the snuggling gang, named Wiltbank, became dissatisfied at the division of a boat load of rum and cigars and threatened to "preach" if his allotment was not increased. The others laughed at his threat and refused to comply with his request. True to his word, however, the discontented adventurer swore out a warrant before a neighboring Justice of the Pace against his comrades, and it was only by the payment of a large sum of amount of money that the case was composed in time to prevent it being heard in a court room.
The smuggling band at Lewes numbers probably one dozen men. Its operations are mainly directed by pilots who while bringing vessel up, negotiate with the captains for the landing of smuggled goods. The spoils are equally divided among the gang and those who prefer cash to goods are always accommodated by one of their number, the moneyed man of the clique.
There is no possibility of effectually preventing smuggling here unless a revenue office is established on the beach overlooking the Breakwater and adjoining the wreckers huts and unwavering vigilance exercised day and night. s matters now are, the freebooters have fully sway. The town is full of smuggled liquor and cigars and it is not infrequent for a person to receive an invitation to have some smuggled brandy or to smoke a smuggled cigar.