As long as Boston 1775 is discussing shellfish myths, I might as well proceed to lobsters. Last month Eric Menninger, a student at Suffolk University, asked if I’d come across anything about “a strike by dock workers in Boston about being forced to eat lobster for too many meals” in the early 1700s.
Something like that appears in Richard Adams Carey's Against the Tide: The Fate of the New England Fisherman (1999):
There was even an eighteenth-century petition to the General Court of Massachusetts that indentured apprentices not be served lobster more often than twice a week.Carey then quoted Francis Hobart Herrick’s 1911 Natural History of the American Lobster on how lobsters used to be so common that no one appreciated them. But Herrick didn’t write anything about people complaining they had to eat too much lobster.
George Wuerthner’s Maine Coast (1989) makes a different claim:
An old Maine law even stated that prisoners could not be fed lobster more than twice a week, for to do so was inhumane treatment.A law should be easy to verify, and Maine didn’t exist separate from Massachusetts until 1820, cutting down the timeframe. But the book cites no source.
Greg O’Brien’s A Guide to Nature on Cape Code and the Islands (1990) sets a similar story considerably to the south:
There is a record of a group of Virginia indentured servants who, in the early 1700s, petitioned the colonial government that they “should not be fed lobster more than twice a week.” The petition was granted in mercy.That statement even comes with a quotation—but it’s not a quotation that appears in any other book Google has yet come across.
In fact, all the statements I found on Google Books about colonial American workers complaining about too much lobster date from the last quarter-century. Antiquarians of earlier decades would have loved to put that factoid into print if they’d come across evidence for it, and they didn’t.
Furthermore, none of these books and none of the websites that make similar statements cites a verifiable historical source.
TOMORROW: Tracing the story across the Atlantic.