“Oysters were the great leveler,” wrote William Grimes in his book Appetite City. “At market stands, the New Yorker with a couple of nickels rubbed shoulders with the gay blades known as ‘howling swells.'”
“In humble cellars and lavish oyster palaces all over the city, oysters were consumed voraciously for as long as the oyster beds held out.”
Oyster saloons popped up near theaters. Fisherman sold them off boats on the rivers. Fancy oyster houses fed the wealthy. Vendors at curbside stands sold them on the cheap, often adhering to what was called the “Canal Street plan”:
“All the oysters you could eat for six cents, usually sprinkled with vinegar and lemon juice, or perhaps just a little salt,” wrote Grimes. “By the 1880s, ketchup and horseradish were standard as well.”
As the ultimate democratizing food, oysters were enjoyed on Fifth Avenue the same as they were in Five Points (see illustration below).
Even Charles Dickens was amazed by their abundance and popularity at cheap Bowery dives during his visit to New York in 1842, which he famously chronicled.
“Again across Broadway, and so—passing from the many-coloured crowd and glittering shops—into another long main street, the Bowery. . . .” he wrote in American Notes.
“These signs which are so plentiful, in shape like river buoys, or small balloons, hoisted by cords to poles, and dangling there announce, as you may see by looking up, ‘oysters in every style.’
“They tempt the hungry most at night, for then dull candles glimmer inside, illuminating these dainty words, and make the mouths of idlers water, as they read and linger.'”
[Top image: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.10037; second image: NYPL, 1870; third image: NYPL menu collection; fourth image: NYPL, 1873]