When oysters were peanuts

They sure loved their oysters at the Hohenadel Brewery on Indian Queen Lane. We found hundreds of shells at the site this morning, unearthed by a construction crew digging up the site of the old brewery for condominiums.

That many fresh oysters would be worth thousands of dollars today at an upscale center city restaurant, but in 19th century bars, oysters were the peanuts of the day. They were the cheap eats that kept customers coming back for beer.

But oysters did more than just keep the taps flowing. They provided a dietary staple for those who could not afford expensive protein like beef or chicken at local markets. During Lent, oysters were also a welcome change of pace from the monotony of fish meals.

Why were oysters so cheap?

The Delaware and Chesapeake Bays produced massive harvests. In 1850 alone, the Chesapeake produced more than 75,000 tons of oysters—equivalent to 6 pounds of oysters for every U.S. citizen. By 1890, the Delaware Bay was known as the oyster capital of the world, harvesting from one to two million bushels of oysters annually until about 1930.

An oyster craze

The demand easily kept pace. In Philadelphia and its suburbs, oyster consumption averaged approximately 6 million oysters a week throughout the 1870s. Cookbooks from the time list more than 40 oyster recipes and neighborhood oyster bars were more prevalent than pizza places or coffeehouses are today. In fact, over 2,400 Philadelphia establishments (hotels, oyster houses, restaurants, and beer saloons) served oysters, in addition to 158 peddlers and curb-side stands.

schmidts beer oysters on corner
Philadelphia bar selling oysters (1944)

The oyster bubble bursts

Predictably, the oyster supply could not keep up. By the turn of the century, legislation had to be passed to slow the overharvesting of oysters. As their numbers dwindled, so too did their size. Oysters by then were just a fraction of their size in the 18th century. Those legendary monsters were said to be as large as dinner plates.

This giant oyster sold in 2009. It measured approximately 17” x 12” and weighed almost 7 pounds. (Photo: The Telegraph)
This giant oyster sold in 2009. It measured approximately 17” x 12” and weighed almost 7 pounds. (Photo: The Telegraph)

I love oysters, but one that big would require a bottle of Tabasco sauce and make the most disgusting oyster shooter ever.

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