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Oyster Tins: A Half-Shell Story

by Mike Reilly

     Ever since I attended the antique show in Indianapolis last September, I've been wanting to tell you about the "oyster tin man" I saw there. Along a wall booth, spread out everywhere, with lots of shelving was a gentleman selling tins. My first reaction was that I should be able to find some chip tins here, but after looking around, I found them all to be oyster tins. Dozens and dozens, perhaps several hundred.

     I chatted briefly with the man who said he originally had over a thousand different oyster tins. The choicest ones had been sold already but he still had 700-800 left to sell. I walked away chalking the encounter up as another one of those, "I didn't know there were so many different oyster tins stories."

     Driving home from Indy, I thought to myself, "Why didn't I get his name and telephone number?" Hindsight is great. His collecting activity would have made a great story to tell you. ME DUMMY! You don't always think straight when your carrying around bags of old potato chip tins is my only defense.

     The encounter haunted me for weeks, then I attended a local antique show and while handing out promotional flyers chanced across a book I hadn't heard of before.

Guess the title?

"Oyster Cans with Price Guide" written by Jim and Vivian Karsnitz.

Paperback. Published by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. Publication date: June 1993, ISBN: 0887404626

     I don't know if the oyster tin man I met briefly at the Indy show had anything to do with this book's publication, but his collection probably could have been a book all by itself. Authors Jim & Vivian Karsnitz readily admit that to keep the book manageable they limited the photos to one example of a brand, not listing all sizes. If you total up the number of brands they have listed, there's about 400 examples of tins shown.

     Besides covering oyster tins, they get into some collectible go-withs such as shucking knives and tokens, revenue stamps, shipping and store items, and other paper items like labels, advertisements, and stationary. Glass bottles and stoneware jugs are also included. If you collect other seafood tins like crabmeat, lobster, shrimp, etc., they show a number of examples.

     In the book's Foreword, the authors mention how their enthusiasm for sporting antiques led them to this specialized collecting area. They say "Cans and tools of the oyster trade are used by some decoy collectors as "go-withs", spicing up the display of their collections".  Maybe some duck hunter or decoy collector can tell me how the oyster trade and collecting duck decoys go together?

     Chapter 1 contains information about the oyster industry, the canning of oyster and notable developments in the development of tin can packaging and preservation. Much of the general information can be found in a number of other book. Some information about Maryland can manufacturers, particularly in Baltimore, is the first that I've seen though.

     Reading the book, that amounts to about six pages of text, my notion of oysters being gathered up by Pacific island natives was quickly dispelled. It also made me think of the Gulf of Mexico containing more than just Forrest Gump's shrimp or that New Englanders eat more than lobster. It's amazing how watching movies influences your outlook on the world.

Some notable oyster trade developments:

1819 - Oysters first packed in New York

1840-49: Oyster packing in tins becoming big business in Baltimore, MD.

1851 - Term "hermetically sealed oysters" introduced.

Mid-1880's : Oyster packing moves to the southern Gulf states

1915 - Biloxi, Mississippi surpasses Baltimore in oyster canning.

1931 - Oysters are being canned on the west coast at Puget Sound, Washington.

     If you have any interest in this area, get the book. Even though the amount of text information is limited, there's some good stuff. With any book, study the photos and illustrations for information. If you're like me, these can provide solid information or clues for research.  The book isn't cheap, $29.95, and that's thru Amazon. Check Chapter 1 of the my internet book's "Book Store" to order. I found mine at an antique mall for the same price, haven't seen it priced any lower.


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Copyright Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society, Inc., , 2002 - 2016, Except as noted: All documents placed on the website remain the property of the contributors, who retain publication rights in accordance with US Copyright Laws and Regulations. In keeping with our policy of providing free information on the Internet, these documents may be used by anyone for their personal research. They may be used by non-commercial entities, when written permission is obtained from the contributor, so long as all notices and submitter information are included. These electronic pages may NOT be reproduced in any format for profit. Any other use, including copying files to other sites, requires permission from the contributors PRIOR to uploading to the other sites. The submitter has given permission to the website to store the file(s) for free access. Such permission may be revoked upon written notice to the website webmaster. Website's design, hosting, and maintenance are donated by Website Editor & Webmaster: Michael R. Reilly (Mike)