The boom days of the bivalve

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“It was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” So said Jonathan Swift, and those that eschew the shellfish would agree.

But for much of the 19th century, oysters — patiently hand-harvested by men such as these “tongers” — were a universal American food.

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“Nobody tires of oysters,” wrote one contemporary, “raw, roasted, scalded, stewed, fried, boiled, escalloped, in pates, fritters, in soups.”

A staple of coastal American Indians, oysters grew in great reefs containing millions of individuals. One such bed in Chesapeake Bay was said to stretch more than 90 miles. Beginning in the 1820s, the industry saw almost constant expansion. The main producers were New England, New York and the Chesapeake, but there were fisheries in Texas and along the Pacific coast, as well.

Large commercial enterprises took over the fisheries as the bivalve’s popularity grew. By the middle of the century, Chesapeake Bay could boast of annual harvests as high as 9 million bushels — approximately 630 million oysters — and sailing ships and trains would speed the shellfish to all corners of the country. As fast food, so to speak, oysters were sold by vendors on street corners from Brooklyn to San Francisco. As a fine food, the western mining mogul could find fresh oysters on the menu at a Denver hotel, and the shipping magnate in Manhattan could do the same at restaurants in the Big Apple.

Yet it was the oyster’s very popularity (and declining water quality) that helped fuel its demise. Early oyster fishermen used long-handled tongs to pick oysters off reefs. It was a slow process but one that did little harm to the reef, allowing it to replenish. Tonging gave way to dredging, where scrapers were simply dragged over the reef, tearing oysters from their beds in a great swath. Each dredging pass dug deeper into the reef until it was destroyed or unable to replenish itself. By the 1890s, fisheries experts were predicting the demise of the large-scale commercial oyster fishery and, another generation later, it had all but disappeared.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.