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  • suzannenorquist

1880 Colorado Oyster Craze

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

In the late 1800’s everyone was eating fresh oysters, even in Colorado. And I’m not talking Rocky Mountain Oysters, which would be another blog entirely. These were actual oysters—from the ocean.

In reading through historic newspapers of Colorado mining towns, I ran across advertisements for fresh oysters. Note the word fresh. Canning technology existed. But fresh oysters?

These big ads in Lake City Colorado’s Silver World newspaper in 1878 piqued my curiosity.

And it wasn’t just Lake City. Newspapers from Aspen, Central City, Denver, Georgetown, Holyoke, and Canyon City contained similar advertisements.

I found two ads for oyster restaurants in Georgetown (west of Denver). The Oyster House in 1873 and the Oyster Bay Restaurant in 1880.

Fundraising oyster dinners were a popular thing, like church spaghetti or chili dinners of the modern era.

Who wouldn’t want to eat oysters while looking at dolls and aprons?

“Few oysters and a deal of soup?” Does that mean they water down the soup? “As they smile and ask for more,” is that because there aren’t enough oysters in the soup?

Newspapers gave recipes for the use of oysters; oyster soup, oyster stew, oyster fritters, fried oysters, and oyster pie. Even oyster toast, made by pouring oyster stew over toast, which is best served on a warm plate. Is that like avacado toast?

All this talk about oysters crushes my images of Colorado miners filling themselves with beef, beans, and potatoes.

The entire country experienced an oyster boom between 1880 and 1910. Innovations in oyster harvesting dramatically increased the supply, elevating oyster production above all other kinds of seafood. Not only that, in 1909, oysters cost half as much per pound as beef. This made them the poor man’s food, which explains their use in fund raising dinners.

However, it doesn’t explain the presence of fresh oysters in Colorado, thousands of miles from the ocean. I found a hint of this in an article about Denver’s Oyster trade.

With the railroad, oysters could be shipped on ice into the middle of the continent. “Fresh” was likely a relative term. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required more hygienic handling of food items, raised the cost of oysters and the boom ended. Probably a good thing. I think those miners had stronger digestive systems than people today.

I’ve never been a fan of oysters. Can’t imagine eating “fresh” oysters, prepared and shipped with questionable refrigeration, even if it were to support a charitable cause. But many people are fans, perhaps we’ll see a resurgence of oyster toast. Let’s just hope they ship it by plane now.

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