J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Lobster Legend

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.


Anonymous said...

Fishing off Duxbury, our charter captain, local born and bred, told us of prison riots in Plymouth over daily meals of lobster, lobsters being considered bycatch and undesireable. Is this a mythical cousin to those already stated here?

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect so. American society really didn’t have “prisons” in the colonial period, when lobsters were supposed to be so unpopular. And I still haven’t found documentation for people objecting to eating too much lobster then. I’d understand if colonists were wary of eating bottom-feeders that look like giant insects, but instead I see lobsters listed as food without any adverse comment.

Christine G. said...

there is a placard at George's Island outlining a series of captive's complaints that they were being served lobster too frequently and that it was inhumane. I remember reading that when we were there doing shakespeare.

J. L. Bell said...

Georges Island wasn’t used as a prison until the U.S. Civil War, well after people were repeating this legend to signify that lobster (or salmon) had been more abundant decades before.

I suspect that placard has no evidence behind it, but if it does cite any historical documents I’d be pleased to hear about them.

SeanNY said...

A few years ago, the guide at the Adams National Historical Park told our group that John Adams was personally involved in drafting a Massachusetts prisoner's bill of rights, providing among other things that prisoners should not be fed lobster more than 3 times a week.

Googling to find any evidence of that claim led to this blog. Many thanks for your excellent detective work!

old time new england said...

My mother (who was born in 1925) always said that when she was a child, lobster was what you ate when you could not afford anything better.

flash gordon, m.d. said...

the book _Life In Colonial Times_ mentions this also. I don't have the book anymore, but seem to recall it did list references.