Oystertown, U.S.A

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Pratt Street wharf, Baltimore, circa 1905. What a tangle of boats, and what an assemblage of humanity — oystermen, fishermen, dockworkers and wholesalers, as well as “loafers” just passing time sitting on the wharf.

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Baltimore was Oystertown, U.S.A. — home to the F. King oyster packing company on West Pratt Street, Platt and Co. on Platt’s wharf, John L. Shriver & Bros., the Baltimore Oyster Co., T. Callahan Packing, C.L. Applegarth and many others, each promsing oysters that were “sweeter, plumper and more healthful.”

Crassostrea virginica is the scientific name for eastern oysters, the bivalves common to Chesapeake Bay, but the public knew them as “Gems of the Ocean” and “Pearls of the Deep.” And they couldn’t get enough of them.

Baltimore pioneered the canning of oysters and soon was shipping shucked oyster meat — steamed and raw — to local outlets in premium, select, jumbo, mammoth, favorite and standard grades. Along with the canneries came side industries that produced the cans and the machinery for canning.

In the late 1800s, a Norwalk, Connecticut, company invented the revolutionary “SealShipt” container, in which shucked oysters could be kept for up to two months. And with the advent of reliable and rapid inland transportation and means of preserving oysters for extended times, daily “oyster trains” were dispatched to such locations as Denver and Salt Lake City.

Business boomed as demand skyrocketed. Oysters became America’s “fast food” of choice, sold in restaurants and on street corners. In the mid-1880s, the Chesapeake oyster fishery employed 20 percent of all fishery workers in the United States, so it’s no wonder the Pratt Street wharf was busy.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue.