Immigrants soon turned this resource into a major industry, and to such an extent that oyster shells were used in road paving and ground up to be mixed in with construction cement. As well as being available in restaurants and specific ‘oyster cellars’ all over New York city, oysters were being shipped all over the country. New Yorkers ate them anytime and almost anywhere, including from carts on the street. They ate Blue Points, Saddle Rocks, Rockaways, Lynnhavens, Cape Cods, Buzzard Bays, Cotuits, Shrewsburys—raw on the half shell. They ate them as fried oysters, oyster pie, oyster patties, oyster box stew, Oysters Pompadour, Oysters Algonquin, oysters a la Netherland, a la Newberg, a la Poulette, oysters roasted on toast, broiled in shell, served with cocktail sauce, stewed in milk or cream, fried with bacon, escalloped, fricasseed, and pickled. At the height of their fame New York oysters were considered the finest in the world at a time when New York was the busiest port in the world.
In a comprehensive history of the oyster in New York, ‘The Big Oyster’, author Mark Kurlansky wrote, “the history of the New York oyster is a history of New York itself—its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtfulness, its destructiveness, its blindness, and—as any New Yorker will tell you—its filth.” It was pollution and over-harvesting that killed the oyster industry in New York, a surprising feat considering that the lower Hudson estuary once had 350 square miles of oyster beds.”
While visiting New York in the 1790s, the Frenchman Moreau de St. Mery commented, “Americans have a passion for oysters, which they eat at all hours, even in the streets.” Oysters were regular fare at cheap eateries, and it was claimed that the very poorest New Yorkers “had no other subsistence than oysters and bread.” Fortunately, oysters are nutritious—rich in protein, phosphorus, iodine, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B, and C.”
One early problem for the New York oyster industry was the use of child labor, children as young as four years old would work from 3am to 5pm shucking oysters, much of this was documented and reported by former schoolteacher Lewis Wickes Hine who gave up the classroom to document the plight of these poor children and he reported it to National Child Labor Committee, of which he had become their chief photographer. His photographs exist as confrontational evidence to this day, and his work changed the laws governing child labor in America forever.
Carmen Nigro, Managing Research Librarian, Milstein Division of U.S. History noted, that burdened by over-harvesting, sewage pollution, and landfill—Manhattan had added over 60 acres to its land area with landfill—the oysters of New York harbor were not sustainable. Until shockingly recently (1972), New York was dumping millions of litres of raw, untreated sewage into the harbor on a daily basis; unsurprisingly the oyster beds did not survive.
In 1921, the New York City Health Department closed the Jamaica Bay oyster beds, then responsible for 80 million oysters a year, due to fears of food borne illness, including typhoid. From there the end came fast, and just six years later in 1927, the last of New York City’s oyster beds was closed in Raritan Bay.
With such a mass depletion of the world’s oyster stocks it was no longer a cheap and easily accessible product and was once again resigned to the list of luxury items for the wealthy and the elite.