A sign reading 'Oyster House' on top of a building

The 19th Century Oyster Boom in America

Oysters were an American favorite long before happy hours stepped into the spotlight. In the 1800s, oysters were enjoyed in cities large and small at an astonishing rate. In fact, New Yorkers gulped an average of 600 oysters per year during this time! However, since the 1990s, American oyster consumption has steadily declined, which begs the question: why were oysters so popular in the 19th century?

An Oyster Abundance

The 20th century featured plentiful amounts of oysters on the east coast. This region was an oyster lover’s paradise, and having them readily available made these bivalves a staple of culinary culture. As fishermen graduated from collecting them by hand to large dredges, or mesh bags, locals were gifted with a massive supply.

A Reasonable Price Point

As you can imagine, widespread oyster availability allowed these delicacies to be surprisingly cheap, which made them even more popular. At this time, both rich and poor households could consume oysters due to the exceptional harvests collected from the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters don’t keep for long, so locals ate their hearts out as fishermen brought in massive catches that needed to be eaten before spoiling. As advances in technology blossomed, namely in transportation and food distribution, the oyster craze spread far and wide.

The Trend of the Times

Not only did Americans get creative with their seafood—frying, broiling, and steaming it—but they enjoyed this classic Northeastern fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Townspeople could drop by their local saloon or parlor and wash down dozens of oysters with a beer or cocktail for a great price. As it became easier to distribute harvests from the Chesapeake Bay to other large cities like Chicago and St. Louis via railroad, oyster lunchrooms and parlors began to pop up all over, much further inland. Dinner parties and social gatherings often featured oysters to the delight of guests and partygoers, and the trend was further fueled by increased demand.

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