The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Oyster

Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 6:00 p.m.

Matthew Booker, North Carolina State University

Oyster shucker, 1913

Oyster shucker, 1913

Three great forces forever reshaped human life in the 19th century. World population nearly doubled and tens of millions of people migrated across deserts and oceans to take new industrial jobs in urban factories. As the city boomed, so did oysters. From the 1840s to 1910s, oysters flourished in the polluted estuaries of America’s industrial cities. Their rise and collapse are equally astonishing. Today, oysters are once again on the menu. But what was once a staple of the urban working poor, grown within the city, has become a luxury, produced in rural places. The rise and fall of oysters is a microcosm of changes in food production and consumption in the modern era. It can teach us what people ate, where food was produced and how the city became a place solely for consumers.

Matthew Booker is associate professor of history at North Carolina State University where he teaches environmental, agricultural, urban, and US history and directs an oral history project on genetic engineering in agriculture. He is also interested in the ways that digital tools can help us visualize and interpret interactions between human beings and the natural world in new and interesting ways. His 2013 book, Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between The Tides, the first social and natural history of San Francisco Bay, was well received by both scholars and public audiences in the United States and abroad. This year, as the Donnelley Family Fellow at the National Humanities Center, he is working on The Rise and Fall of the Edible City, exploring the history of local food production in cities during the industrial and urban revolutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.