One of the most collectible items on the Shore
By Tracey F. Johns
This curated display of oyster cans is a popular stopping point for CBMM visitors
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Chief Curator Pete Lesher exemplifies his title while dressed in his signature bowtie and carrying his trusted pocket watch. He leans in to speak with palpable enthusiasm and his incredibly deep knowledge about the Chesapeake Bay region’s history to speak about oyster cans, why people collect them, and the significant role the seafood packing industry has played in helping to create a fishery.
The Talbot County Councilman, Eagle Scout, log canoe sailor, and historian has spent 35 years at CBMM. He started as a dockhand, occasionally arriving by rowboat from across the Miles River. He later completed an internship focused on the museum’s small craft collection, with many of those artifacts on public display today in CBMM’s Small Boat Shed exhibition.
Lesher met his wife Mariana while she was docking at CBMM with family. Now their two school-aged children join them as skilled sailors and are growing up knowing the names of every skipjack and sailing log canoe in the Bay’s fleets.
Lesher became CBMM’s curator in 1991 and dedicates his time researching and curating a collection that now holds more than 70,000 objects, all related to the Chesapeake Bay. Objects include the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse, a fleet of historic workboats, waterfowl decoys, maritime models and one of the largest collections of Chesapeake Bay oyster cans known in existence.
Lesher says 660 items are cataloged in CBMM’s oyster can collection, which began in 1990 before he became curator. He says the collection will never be complete because of the endless number of collectible items surrounding the oyster packing industry — including a recently accessioned press used for soldering oyster can lids, and items including bill-of-sale receipts, branded paperweights and more.
He says each can shares a unique story, with many of the oyster cans and related items in CBMM’s collection found at local antique shows and stores, collectible dealers and estate auctions. The collection’s largest acquisition took place in 2002 when CBMM purchased from collector Ronnie Newcomb of Dorchester County’s Church Creek.
“Ronnie Newcomb’s collection started with tins, but includes much more,” Lesher states. “Items include shipping crates once used to load oyster cans on railroad cars, bulk retail store containers from which oysters were ladled to customers, packing company ephemera and more.”
Lesher says other collectors include people interested in the history and culture of this area and the identity of places each oyster can represents. He says many people like to collect from a particular geography. A Tilghman Island weekend homeowner may collect Tilghman Brand cans for example. In Crisfield, you might find a collector with a tin from H and B Brand oysters.
“Some tin collections are culinary and seafood-related, including that of the Betty Thomas Shulz and her family still operating the Fisherman’s Inn in Grasonville, Maryland, for example. Their collection dominates the ambiance of the restaurant. The décor alone — much less the seafood — is enough to draw you there,” Lesher says.
Lesher says many oyster cans can be affordable, while some have significant value depending on the brand, condition and age of the tin. A vintage Chesapeake Bay Famous Pearl Brand one-gallon oyster tin is listed for purchase on eBay at $120. A one-gallon B & L Brand Oyster Tin from the Bivalve Oyster Baking Company is another listed at a nearly $200 price point.
“With anything collectible, condition matters,” Lesher adds. “The nice thing about collecting oyster tins is that they can be quite affordable — most can be had for under $50 until you come across some of the scarcer tins. People mainly collect around their locality. If you are from Crisfield or Baltimore, there are lots to find, but even small towns like Oxford have an impressive variety. Oyster tins and collectors come from other regions also, including New England, Delaware Bay, and the Gulf Coast.”
Many of the Chesapeake Bay’s beautifully lithographed oyster cans — or tins as they are often called — can be seen on public display in CBMM’s Oystering on the Bay exhibition — a waterfront, indoor space with the oystering skipjack E.C. Collier — a centerpiece to the exhibition — and a dock just outside for nippering or tonging for oysters.
The historic oyster cans are part of a larger exhibit highlighting the oyster fishery’s role in shaping the Chesapeake Bay region’s history, culture and landscape. The balance of CBMM’s oyster cans is safely and securely stored in CBMM’s collection, which — along with the museum’s library — is accessible for researchers by appointment.
The variety of oyster cans in the exhibit shows the broad reach of the Chesapeake’s seafood processing and oystering industries over geography and time, and the creativity needed to differentiate brands in the commodity market that railroads and refrigeration created for oysters and canned food at the turn of the 20th century.
“Oysters were once a staple protein,” Lesher says. “We were harvesting plentiful oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, processing them at packinghouses, beginning at those already established in Baltimore, and ultimately feeding much of the country and our Civil War soldiers at the time.
“Canned, fresh oysters were very much relied upon at that time as many rely on chicken or ground beef today. Collectors seek out these unique objects through an attraction to the sense of place linked to each can.”
He also says the oystering industry was once the foundation of the region’s economy — supporting jobs, culture and economic growth.
“We lose sight of the oystering industry’s significance to the region because today’s number of watermen is relatively small compared to the height of oystering,” Lesher says.
Those watermen were working the Bay when Maryland’s oyster harvest reached approximately 15 million bushels in 1884 as an all-time peak. The Chesapeake Bay Journal for comparison reported preliminary June 2020 figures indicating the last wild harvest season netted 270,000 bushels of the bivalve.
Lesher says he found unexpected joy growing CBMM’s collection in one particular oyster tin that may have been packed at the location known as Navy Point, once the site of several seafood packinghouses and the maritime museum’s home since its 1965 beginning.
“I discovered a 1903 letter from J. L. McCready to an out-of-state customer saying he had just formed a partnership with George Caulk in St. Michaels and was now selling his product under his new Navy Point brand,” he adds.
“We had already had J. L. McCready tins and I thought they were only connected to Baltimore,” he added. “Now, I understood those oysters in that early tin may have been packed right on our location. These details added a significant layer of meaning to an object already in the collection.”
CBMM has recently digitized information and photographs of its collection, which is now searchable online at collections.cbmm.org.