From the Exhibition:

Visualizing 19th-Century New York

Oysters were ubiquitous in nineteenth-century New York City. This was nowhere more evident than at Fulton Market, as depicted in this 1870 Harper’s Weekly wood engraving, where some of the city’s most famous oyster vendors plied their trade and where oyster stands crowded the marketplace. At the center, a man and woman wearing respectable middle-class attire look on as a customer clad in black hastily consumes his oyster. Behind the counter, a mustachioed gentleman shucks another shell, and at the right, two men cook oysters over a stove. In the foreground are baskets full of freshly fished mollusks, and in the background, other customers, including fashionably dressed women and men wearing top hats, enjoy their meals seated at tables.

Oysters were an abundant natural food source at this time, as the writer George Makepeace Towle noted in his 1870 book American Society: “Large, and luscious, and juicy—scarcely to be appreciated by the English epicure, who is forced to be content with a bivalve far inferior—is the American oyster. The oyster may perhaps be called the national dish—it is at least the great dish of the Atlantic states.”1 They were a convenient and cheap “brain food,” according to Harper’s Weekly2 and, as Towle noted, were prepared in “every imaginable style—escolloped, steamed, stewed, roasted ‘on the half shell,’ eaten raw with pepper and salt, devilled, baked in crumbs, cooled in påtés, put in delicious sauces on fished and boiled mutton.”3 The oyster was consumed widely by all classes of society as well, in part because they were so cheap. A plate of the mollusks sold at oyster stands and saloons that dotted the city for as little as 6 cents apiece and were a favorite lunchtime delicacy for wealthy bankers and working-class tradesmen alike.4

A shared love of this bivalve culinary delight was depicted widely in the mainstream illustrated press, including Harper’s Weekly, the leading middle-class illustrated periodical, which had been founded in 1850. Its wide reach, both in New York and beyond, was made possible by low-cost woodblock printing techniques. These illustrations gave form to the pleasures and dangers of the bustling metropolis by presenting an array of imagery that depicted acceptable modes of social conduct, including both comportment and dress. As this engraving suggests, oyster stands at Fulton Market were among the few places where different levels of society came together, a fact most certainly not lost on the vast numbers of Harper’s readers, who learned to navigate society based on what they saw in the illustrated media. “Fulton Market is famous for its oysters,” noted American journalist Julius Henri Browne. “It is strange the saloons are patronized so liberally by a class you never expect to find at such an uninteresting place. But it is the fashion to go to Fulton market, and that fact, more than the excellence of what you get, preserves the extraordinary custom.”5

Fulton Market’s prime location next to the 24-hour Brooklyn ferry contributed to its success as a fashionable destination for oyster consumption. As historian Cindy Lobel has noted, “Unlike the vice-ridden eating houses of the red-light districts, the all-night dining options at Fulton Market maintained a respectable and clean atmosphere.”6 Wealthy businessmen waiting for their ferry back to suburban Brooklyn regularly mixed with late-night revelers and shorefront tradesmen, all of them sharing an appetite for oysters. Gender-segregated dining rooms existed across the city, but at Fulton Market’s famed oyster stands, “fair and expensively attired women”7 mixed comfortably with men from all walks of life, as seen in the varying styles of dress and class depicted in this engraving. The image of Fulton Market oyster stands suggests the types of people who could be found frequenting these establishments and makes clear that it was a space where classes as well as genders mixed freely. Although New York was commonly depicted in the popular press as a socially divided city, the image suggests that the oyster, at least at Fulton Market, was one thing that New Yorkers were happy to enjoy together.

1.George Makepeace Towle, American Society (London: Chapman & Hall, 1870), 272.

2.Harper’s Weekly, March 16, 1872, 220.

3.Towle, American Society, 272.

4.Andrew F. Smith, “The Food and Drink of New York from 1624 to 1898,” in Gastropolis: Food and New York City, ed. Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 42.

5.Junius Henri Browne, The Great Metropolis, a Mirror of New York (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1869), 412.

6.Cindy Lobel, “Out to Eat: The Growth of New York City and its Restaurants,” Winterthur Portfolio 44, nos. 2/3 (Summer / Autumn 2010), 217.

7.Browne, The Great Metropolis, 413.