As the school year comes to a close, I find myself weeding through the many notes I have accrued while planning student projects this year. Most projects were based on topics that were familiar to me. But in some cases I had to become an "expert" on a new field. Such was the case with what become known as "the oyster project."
IS 14 in Sheepshead Bay received a special grant this year that required them to create a multi-disciplinary curriculum focused on the local marine environment. So when I came to them in the fall, they were desperate to connect the required history project to Sheepshead Bay's waterfront. The teachers were thinking oysters. The students were already reading excerpts from Mark Kurlansky's The Big Oyster. I knew Kurlansky's book well (it's worth a read!), but I also knew that it was heavily focused on Manhattan.
Oyster businesses certainly existed in Brooklyn, but how to tell their story? Manhattan was indeed the hub of the industry, particularly in the consumption department. And there is far more archival information on the oysters of Manhattan than of Brooklyn. But, after some diligent hunting, I managed to dig up (pun intended) some oysters in the Brooklyn Collection.
Because the height of the industry was in the 19th century, the Eagle was an invaluable source. Article upon article discussed the startling quantities of oysters available to Brooklynites. An 1896 article with the subtitle "Cheap Sea Food for Brooklyn" stated that the New York State Fish Commissioner aimed to supply 50,000 oysters a day to Brooklyn. 3,000 men in New York City and Brooklyn were employed in "the business of raising and buying and selling shell fish." The State Commission granted parcels of underwater oystering land in Jamaica Bay to Brooklynites at the price of 25 cents per acre for fifteen years.
In 1870, you could buy one hundred raw oysters for $1.00. As late as 1901, the price remained the same in some markets. The 1900 Brooklyn Borough Business Directory listed 23 different oyster dealers - including Lundy Brothers on Emmons Avenue near East 23rd Street. Lundy's, as many of you know, went on to be one of the staples of Brooklyn seafood cuisine.
The oystering business was so lucrative that oyster theft and illegal farming (the common term for digging up oysters) was a rampant problem. By 1886, the Flatlands Oyster Protective Assocation (later the Brooklyn Oyster Protective Association) regulated and organized the planters and harvesters of oysters. In 1895, the owners of oyster beds near Gravesend, Canarsie and Sheepshead Bay claimed that individuals were trespassing upon and stealing from their oyster beds. In 1896, the police comissioner of Brooklyn took "the oysterman under his protecton" and issued a boat patrol of the oyster waters.
While I could not find any images of oyster businesses in Brooklyn, these images of processing plants on Long Island (taken later in the 1930s) gave students an idea of what types of structures would have been in Sheepshead Bay during the height of the oystering.
Early signs of over-fishing and pollution (the downfall of all fishing in New York Harbor) can be seen during the height of oystering. An 1896 Eagle article complains that garbage is being dumped into the areas around Sheepshead Bay, Jamaica Bay, Canarsie and Flatlands - all of which relied on oystering and other seafood industries. By the early 20th century, oyster farming in Brooklyn was at an end.
In the past few years, the oyster has enjoyed a comeback in the Brooklyn culinary scene, but our "local" oysters are now from Long Island. We still can't eat Brooklyn oysters, but we are starting to see their return to the harbor. Just this month, the non-profit Plant-a-Fish worked with a group of Bushwick high schoolers to plant a new oyster bed in New York Harbor. There's hope for our Brooklyn bivalves yet! (Come to think of it, Brooklyn Bivalves might be a good name for our new basketball team...)
And so, armed with a wealth of unexpected archival materials, I managed to create the project on Brooklyn oysters that I had originally thought impossible. In fact, I quite enjoyed it! If only it were oyster season - I'd go out and celebrate with a few delicious halfshells.