Oyster tin collection, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Whenever leading a tour of our Oystering on the Chesapeake exhibit, I never fail to stop at the wall of oyster cans so everyone can take a good look. Candy-colored and eye-assaulting, each tin jabs visual elbows with its neighbor, fighting to be noticed among a riot of text and imagery that present a collective homage to Chesapeake capitalism. The sheer diversity of the cans, each insisting on the superiority of their brand’s freshness, cleanliness, purity, location of origin, and taste, makes the answer to my question harder than you would think: “Are the contents of these cans different, or all they all the same?”
“Just a Little Better”: Cans from the oyster packing house that once occupied the Museum’s grounds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Coulbourn and Jewett.
Of course, each can contained Chesapeake oysters, whose variances in taste were imperceptible to the average palate. But to the 19th century consumer, perusing a shelf where competing brands lined up like soldiers in a battle for attention, those visual indicators shouting every possible difference would have been highly persuasive. Even today, when we modern, world-weary shopping sophisticates are presented with a panoply of oyster cans, it can be hard to tell that only the splendid exteriors deviate from their slick, briny sameness inside.
When most of the cans in the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum were produced, marketing was anything but the constant barrage of pictures, sounds, and slogans we 21st century denizens absorb. It was the late 19th century, and for the first time in history, images (of any kind, even the most humble) were available widely to the public. Just 50 years earlier, most Bay folks would have possessed only a few books, and most of those were unillustrated. Newspapers and signage were comprised of forests of unrelieved inky text. The ghostly results of early photography had yet to be invented, and paintings were generally owned by only the rich. Thanks to the wonders of the industrial age, however, that all quickly changed as advances were in made in technology that could reproduce pictures en masse, on a myriad of mediums.
Examples of artwork, logos, slogans and photography used by oyster packing houses to shill their products from the collections of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Canning itself was a new novel technique, also produced by innovation during the Industrial Revolution. Prior to its invention in early 19th century France, food had to be dried, salted, or pickled to maintain freshness. Although recipes for pickled oysters existed, it isn’t hard to imagine why they would have never truly tickled the fancy of American oyster consumers, accustomed as they were to fresh shellfish that tasted of the sea rather than of vinegar. So oysters, isolated from a larger market their quick spoilage, remained a slow and local seafood economy for most of the Chesapeake until the wonders of canning made them widely available. Distributed in iced refrigerated cars, the garishly cheerful Chesapeake oyster cans traveled far from home across the spiderweb network of train tracks to destinations as far-flung as Colorado, Kansas, and even Australia.
In the race for consumers, oyster packing houses appropriated every positive and recognizable image they could think to associate with their brand: storks to symbolize fertility, magicians, mothers, all sorts of assorted Bay boats, mermaids, sailors, beautiful ladies. Even the King himself wasn’t exempt from a little side work as the hunkiest rock n’ roller ever to steer a skipjack.
These Maryland Beauty Brand oysters clearly hope to attract a better class of customers.
For 50 years, oyster cans were a medium for the unlimited creativity of early advertising. Their strident, carnival-barker beauty is as arresting and over-the-top today as it would have been when the oysters contained inside were within their 2 week sell-by date. As the oyster industry declined due to overfishing, disease, and environmental factors in the 20th century, the need to compete diminished as one packing house after another closed, and with them, so too did their branding and iconic, idiosyncratic cans.
“SEa-L-Tite Oysters are selected natural growth oysters from deep salt water beds/ All that is naturally good/ Flavor- nutriment/ Vitamines (Fresh Life Elements)/ Sealed right in this container just as they come from the shell/ All usable- no waste- more net ounces of wholesome food for the money than in any flesh food. /W. H. Killian Co., Baltimore, MD.”
Today, the few packing houses in the Chesapeake still in operation use plastic containers with sealed lids- certainly more functional, but an abysmal failure as advertising masterpieces. All that is left behind as evidence of the “white gold rush of the Chesapeake” and the innovative design work it inspired are empty cans like those in our collections, at flea markets, and in antique stores. Scraped clean of their contents, their buxom mermaid still whispers in bold type, “oysters…fresh life elements…all that is naturally good.”