Aw Shucks…It’s an Oyster Obsession

Certain silverplate patterns from the late 1800’s were not offered in a full line.  Some were offered only for a particular use, for example a coffee spoon or oyster fork.   The photo below shows various oyster forks that are (or were) available at my Etsy shop.  They can be found here:  https://www.etsy.com/shop/queenofsienna/search?search_query=oyster+fork

Oyster Fork Grouping

Oyster Fork Examples

The Fouled Anchor and Rope design in the first photo was manufactured by Simpson, Hall, Miller, backstamped with the Eagle Wm. Rogers trademark, and this pattern was only made in oyster forks (per Davis & Deibel in their book “Silver Plated Flatware Patterns”).

Fouled Anchor Design

Fouled Anchor and Rope Design

The 1847 Rogers “Venetian” pattern looks so contemporary, even today.  However, it was included in Meriden Britannia’s 1886 catalog and offered only in oyster forks and coffee spoons.  The photo below shows this fork next to the matching illustration on the catalog page.

Venetian Pattern Oyster Fork

Venetian Pattern Oyster Fork

The “Daisy” pattern was also featured in Meriden Britannia’s 1886 catalog, and they too were only offered in oyster forks and coffee spoons.

Daisy Pattern

Daisy Pattern

In their 1886 catalog, Meriden Britannia offered the Daisy and Owl pattern (another limited line) oyster forks in a boxed set:

Daisy and Owl Pattern Oyster Fork Boxed Set

Daisy and Owl Pattern Oyster Fork Boxed Set

Even earlier, oyster forks were included in the 1882 Rogers & Brother catalog.  The forks were offered in two variations of three pronged forks as well as two prong:

Page from 1882 Rogers Brothers Catalog

Page from 1882 Rogers & Brother Catalog

And in the 1892 Rogers & Bro. catalog, in addition to an expanded variety of patterns, the prong shapes differed from pattern to pattern:

1892 Rogers & Bro. Catalog

1892 Rogers & Bro. Catalog

The Delmonico oyster fork has a very unusual shaped bowl…kind of a fork and spoon combined.  This Delmonico pattern was only offered in a small bar spoon and oyster fork and is extremely rare.

1892 Rogers & Bro. Catalog

1892 Rogers & Bro. Catalog

The Shrewsbury design was extremely imaginative (and very long)!

1892 Rogers & Bro. Catalog

1892 Rogers & Bro. Catalog

This page shows all of the patterns in which Rogers & Bro. offered oyster forks in their 1892 catalog:

1892 Rogers & Bro. Catalog

1892 Rogers & Bro. Catalog

In the 1896 Busiest House in America catalog, the 1847 Rogers patterns “Moline”, “Columbia” and “Savoy” were featured oyster forks.

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1896 Busiest House Catalog

1896 Busiest House Catalog

And boxed sets of oyster forks were offered in a variety of patterns:

1896 Busiest House Catalog

1896 Busiest House Catalog

In the 1882, 1886, 1892 and 1896 catalogs above, these forks were not called “seafood” or “cocktail” forks; they were “oyster” forks and measured approximately 6 inches in length, with Shrewsbury being longer.  I’ve tried to find a patent for the “oyster fork” but have been unsuccessful thus far. 

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Volume 1, edited by Andrew Smith and Bruce Kraig, states “Oyster forks, produced in England from 1790 and retailed by Tiffany from at least 1846, were requisite at smart American dining rooms by 1860.”

Obviously, if you have an oyster fork, the oysters were served on a dish of some sort.  The earliest patent for an oyster dish in the United States (that I’m aware of) was given to John W. Boteler of Washington, D. C. on June 16, 1874.

1874 Boteler Patent

1874 John W. Boteler Patent

You’ll note that in his specifications, Mr. Boteler states that the dish has “a handle for carrying the plate or dish”.  It seems to me that he intended this dish to be used at a cocktail party or some other affair where you would walk around carrying a plate and not as a plate for a place setting.  Apparently, Haviland & Co. produced these plates for J. W. Boteler.

The following year, John Boteler obtained a patent for a remarkably similar design.  He called it a “luncheon – plate”.  But it was also a plate with a handle.  Within the specifications he refers to it as a “party plate” with receptacles for holding different types of food and a smaller receptacle to hold a coffee cup or wine glass.  This plate would facilitate walking around during a party, holding one plate, and not trying to balance a plate and glass or whatever.

1875 John W. Boteler Patent

1875 John W. Boteler Patent

Earlier, in 1867, an oyster plate design was patented by Minton & Co.:

Minton & Co. Patent

1867 Minton & Co. Patent

In 1881 Mary Foote Henderson’s book “Practical Cooking, and Dinner Giving” contains a paragraph describing table arrangement and place settings and mentions the variety of oyster plates available.  See last paragraph below:

1881 Book "Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving"

1881 Book “Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving”

Before the Romans arrived in Britain in 43AD,  Britons had been eating oysters.  In the early 19th Century they were enjoyed by rich and poor alike in England.  The BBC website, www.bbc.co.uk states that “The liberal use of oysters continued into Victorian times, while pickled oysters were a regular food of the poor in London and other towns.  As Dickens’ Sam Weller remarks, ‘Poverty and oysters always seem to go together.’ ”

The BBC website went on to say “In the middle of the 19th Century, oysters and scallops were being dredged in huge numbers all along Sussex coast by fleet of oyster smacks.  Then, quite suddenly, the natural oyster beds became exhausted, partially through overfishing and partially through pollution; it was only deliberate artificial breeding that saved them from extinction.”

In the blog post containing a recipe for beef stout and oyster pie, which looks wonderful, the website www.missfoodwise.com states “Demand for oysters was high, with as many as 80 million oysters a year being transported from Whitstable’s nutrient-rich waters to London’s Billingsgate Market alone.  In the middle of the 19th century the natural oyster beds became exhausted in England.  As the oyster beds further declined, what had previously been the food of the poor became a delicacy for the upper classes once again.”

New York City was known worldwide for its excellent oysters and was considered to be the world’s oyster capitol for a century.  But, similar to England, over-harvesting and pollution killed New York’s oyster industry.  By the 1920’s New York City’s oyster beds were closed mostly due to toxicity. 

What is interesting is that during the century of the oyster craze in New York City, restaurants called “oyster cellars” appeared on the scene.  Some were somewhat sleazy but one in particular was highly regarded.  It was “Downing’s Oyster House” located at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets.  Thomas Downing (1791-1866), a free black man who was raised in Chincoteague, Virginia, ran the most famous and considered the best oyster cellar in New York.  He had been raking oysters since he was a child and knew the trade well.  His restaurant was beautifully appointed and was so popular that in 1835, ten years after opening, it was expanded into two neighboring buildings.  Downing featured oysters served many different delicious ways including various stews and turkey with oyster stuffing.  He shiped oysters to Paris and London…even to Queen Victoria who is said to have been so pleased with hers that she sent him a gold watch.

Charles Dickens, who had included the line ‘Poverty and oysters always seem to go together’ in his book The Pickwick Papers in 1836, visited New York City in 1842 and an elite party was held for him called the ‘Boz Ball’ (Boz being his pseudonym).  Only members of New York’s aristocracy were invited (pedigrees were checked out) and tickets were sold for $10 a piece (the ball was a sell out).  The caterer of the Boz Ball was none other than Thomas Downing.  It is said that Charles Dickens frequented many of the city’s oyster cellars which advertised “Oysters in Every Style”.  Dickens even commented on “the wonderful cookery of oysters” in New York.

The following photo of an 1890s postcard came from an excellent web site:  http://www.oysters.us/belle-epoque.html

1890s French Postcard - Oyster Passion

1890s French Postcard – Oyster Passion

That guy in the postcard shown above looks like he has heard about oysters being considered an aphrodisiac. Doesn’t he?

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This entry was posted in Downing's Oyster Bar, Downing's Oyster House, J W Boteler, New York City oysters, oyster cellars, oyster fork, oyster plate, Thomas Downing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Aw Shucks…It’s an Oyster Obsession

  1. Novella says:

    Hi! I can’t seem to find any information about the Rogers and Bros. Daisy pattern! Do you know how long this pattern was manufactured?

    • queenofsienna says:

      Hello! There isn’t much info out there on Daisy. I have an October 1897 issue of the Youth’s Companion and it was being offered as a premium in that edition and they didn’t indicate that it was the last offering of this pattern. So it was offered at least from 1886 to 1897 but that’s all I can say for sure. Thanks for the question, wish I had more info.

  2. Pingback: Delmonico Oyster Forks – Behind The Bar

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