The Union Oyster House is the oldest restaurant in Boston and the oldest restaurant in continuous service in the U.S. — the doors have always been open to diners since 1826. Union Street was laid out in 1636, but there are no municipal records documenting the Oyster House’s date of construction. All that is known is that the building has stood on Union Street as a major local landmark for more than 250 years. In 1742—before it became a seafood house, the building housed importer Hopestill Capen’s fancy dress goods business, known colorfully as “At the Sign of the Cornfields.” At this time, the Boston waterfront came up to the back door of the dry goods establishment, making it convenient for ships to deliver their cloth and goods from Europe.
The first stirrings of the American Revolution reached the upper floor of the building in 1771, when printer Isaiah Thomas published his newspaper “The Massachusetts Spy,” long known as the oldest newspaper in the United States. In 1775, Capen’s silk and dry goods store became headquarters for Ebenezer Hancock, the first paymaster of the Continental Army. There is no reason to doubt that Washington himself was familiar with its surroundings. At the very spot where diners today enjoy their favorite New England specialties, Federal troops received their “war wages” in the official pay-station. During the revolution the Adams, Hancock, and Quincy wives, as well as their neighbors, often sat in their stalls of the Capen House sewing and mending clothes for the colonists.
In 1796, a future king of France lived on the second floor. Exiled from his country, he earned his living by teaching French to many of Boston’s fashionable young ladies. Later Louis Phillippe returned home to serve as King from 1830 to 1848.
1826 marked the end of Capen’s Dry Goods Store and the beginning of Atwood and Bacon’s establishment. The new owners installed the fabled semi-circular Oyster Bar — where the greats of Boston paused for refreshment. (Click here to see an original menu from the Atwood and Bacon Oyster House.) It was at the Oyster Bar that Daniel Webster, a constant customer, daily drank his tall tumbler of brandy and water with each half-dozen oysters, seldom having less than six plates.
The toothpick was first used in the United States at the Union Oyster House. Enterprising Charles Forster of Maine first imported the picks from South America. To promote his new business he hired Harvard boys to dine at the Union Oyster House and ask for toothpicks.
A college president was salad man here. Jack Coleman, President of Pennsylvania’s Haverford College worked in total anonymity for a few months during his sabbatical when he secretly sampled some of America’s rigorous jobs and lifestyles.
The oyster is a bivalve mollusc that has existed since prehistoric times.
The shell composes about 4/5 of the oyster’s entire weight, and is its only means of protecting its soft body.
Unlike the shell of the clam that is hinged at the long end, the oyster’s shell is hinged at the narrow end. The outside of the shell is rough and irregular but the inside is polished smooth.
Oyster shells have been used for centuries for various purposes. They have been used for roads and footpaths; as filling for wharves, low lands and fortifications; as ballast for vessels; as manure for exhausted fields; and as raw material for lime.
Oysters as Food
If natural enemies were not enough, man has an insatiable appetite for oysters, and is unrelenting in his efforts to harvest the delicious bivalves. Oysters are harvested either wild from natural beds or, as is more often the case today, from cultivated grounds. (Wild oysters are rough and irregular, while cultivated oysters assume a more uniform shape, and produce more standard meat.)
Not all oysters taste the same. In fact, of the many species, only a few have any commercial value. And the size, shape, flavor and food value of oysters are severely affected by their habitat, the foods eaten, and the temperature of the water in which they have grown. Oysters, due to their native element, are more or less salty, and in fact were at one time sold as accompaniments to drink.
Oysters were first served to the public in this country in 1763 when a primitive saloon was opened in New York City in a Broad Street cellar.
In the 19th century, the American people were enveloped in an oyster craze. In every town there were oyster parlors, oyster cellars, oyster saloons, oyster bars, oyster houses, oyster stalls and oyster lunchrooms. The oyster houses were very popular amongst the best class of people in the city. They were also popular amongst tourists because they knew they would get the choicest seafood, cooked and served in the best style. And with the “express” service and the coming of railroads, oyster houses became popular inland as well.
As early as 1926, the U.S. Public Health Service undertook a system of sanitary controls to safeguard the public and the industry with regard to the purity of oysters.
When a foreign body gets lodged in the oyster shell, the oyster begins to build concentric layers of onion-like material, thereby giving birth to a “pearl.” Certain tropical species of oysters produce pearls of iridescent luster that are commercially valuable. Pearls come in many different shapes and hues, but the most valuable are the large, perfectly round and flawless, black pearls.
Rarely is a pearl of any value found in North American waters.