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A History of Oysters Bars in the Carolinas

Freshly shucked oysters are a long-standing Carolina tradition

Like many 19th century groceries, the Dughi Store at 235 Fayetteville Street in Raleigh featured an oyster saloon
Like many 19th century groceries, the Dughi Store at 235 Fayetteville Street in Raleigh featured an oyster saloon (North Carolina State Archives)

By Robert F. Moss

Earlier this week Stephanie Burt took a deep dive into contemporary oyster bar design. In addition to the finer points of layout and building materials, she described how an oyster selection really adds to a restaurant’s bottom line. That’s one reason oyster bars have surged in popularity in the past decade, whether as adjuncts to steakhouses and other high-end restaurants or as the core concept of the business.

But this isn’t the first time fresh-shucked oysters (and fried, roased, and stewed ones) have enjoyed a wave of vogue in the Carolinas. If anything oyster bars were even more popular in the 19th century than they are today, though they tended to be called oyster houses or oyster saloons back then. They were one of the first forms of restaurants in the Carolinas, helping lead the transition from boarding houses and taverns to modern commercial dining.

From Shell Middens to Oyster Houses

People in what is now called the Carolinas have been eating oysters for a very long time—a period measured not in centuries but millenia. The earliest coastal residents left behind massive “middens,” or mounds of discarded oyster shells. The so-called Sewee Shell Mound in the Cape Romain National Forest just up the coast from Charleston dates back some 4,000 years.

The Sewee Shell Mound in the Cape Romain National Forest
The Sewee Shell Mound in the Cape Romain National Forest (Ammodramus under CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Who actually created that midden is unknown—it antedates the arrival of the Sewee people by several thousand years—but its C-shape, which may have once been completely circular, suggests that it was not a random trash pile but rather a deliberately created structure used perhaps for celebratory or ceremonial purposes.

The remnants of similar well-organized mounds (and plenty of more disorganized ones) can still be found up and down the Carolina coast, for oysters, along with crabs and fish, were a staple of the native Carolinian diet. What we now call the Battery in Charleston was called variously Oyster Point or White Point by the early British colonists because of the mounds of bleached white oyster shells the original inhabitants left behind.

The European-born residents of the new Carolina colony took readily to oysters, too. In 1770, a boarding house keeper named Ann Hawes advertised in the South-Carolina Gazette that she had put up “best pickled oysters” and was offering them to sale to the public. One Mrs. Fisher advertised a few years later that she would provide “oyster suppers” to gentlemen customers on short notice and that she had put up pickled oysters in jars “for Captains of vessels to take to sea.”

In the closing years of the 18th century, oysters began to be served in the city’s coffeehouses, an early form of restaurant that provided hearty meals along with plenty of liquor and coffee. (Despite their names, American coffeehouses sold far more alcoholic beverages than they did caffeinated ones).

In 1795, the Exchange Coffee-house at 4 Broad Street—just half a block east from today’s Oak Steakhouse—promised to accommodate gentlemen with “beef steaks and oysters, dressed in every desirable manner.” Steaks and oysters remained a popular combination in coffeehouses and taverns for many decades to come.

The Rise of the Oyster House

In the early years of the 19th century, the popularity of oysters led to an entirely new form of commercial dining establishment in the Carolinas: the oyster house.

These businesses were modeled after predecessors in New York City, where so-called “oyster cellars” flourished in the basements of buildings along Canal Street. A Frenchman named Moreau de St. Mery visited New York in the 1790s and observed, “Americans have a passion for oysters, which they eat at all hours, even in the streets.”

They had the same passion in the Carolians. In October 1808 (yes, a month with an “r”—that’s important), Robinson’s Beef Steak & Oyster House opened at 91 Meeting Street, with a long room fitted up to host meetings and large gatherings. It doesn’t appear to have remained in business very long, but a series of similar establishments followed in its wake, including A. Wood’s Beef Steak and Oyster House in 1810, John McCall’s Beef Steak and Oyster House on Meeting Street near the courthouse in 1816, and Charles & William Wilson’s Beef Steak & Oyster House on Tradd in 1818.

Robinson's Beef Steak & Oyster House opened in October 1808 in Charleston.
Robinson's Beef Steak & Oyster House opened in October 1808 in Charleston.

By the 1820s, the shellfish increasingly eclipsed the beef steaks, and Queen Street became Charleston’s burgeoning oyster row. Two of Charleston's most prominent houses were David Truesdell's New-York Oyster House, which was located at the corner of Queen Street and Philadelphia Alley, and S. B. Burdges's Carolina Oyster House, which was one block further down Queen at the corner of State Street. At least three others—the King Street Oyster House, Markey's Oyster House, and James McLean's Oyster and Eating House on Church Street—were in operation during the 1820s, too.

Most of these houses sourced their shellfish primarily from Carolina waters, receiving hundreds of bushels at a time from the rivers around Beaufort, North Carolina, and Bluffton, South Carolina. The proprietors of the King Street Oyster House, C. K. and W. S. Babson, went a step further and declared in 1822 that they would procure the best “Mill Pond Oysters.” That meant bivalves cultivated in shallow ponds, which caused them to grow larger and fatter than wild varieties. Who was farming those oysters is unknown.

Being on the coast with an active port, Charleston was the heart of oyster-eating in the Carolinas before the Civil War. But there were oyster houses in other parts of the Carolinas, too.

In 1823, Sarah Ransom converted her home in Washington, North Carolina, which is just east of Greenville on the Pamlico River, into an oyster house. She served the shellfish “dressed in any manner desired” throughout the day and until eleven o’clock at night. By the 1830s several oyster houses were in operation along the banks of the Neuse River in New Bern, too. Few details survive about these businesses, but we can assume they were serving oysters fresh from the local rivers in a manner similar to their peers in Charleston.

"The Worst and Most Detestable Purlieus of Charleston"

Up in New York, oyster restaurants tended to be located below street level. Hungry Gothamites would step down a short flight of stairs into the cellars and feast on freshly-shucked bivalves served raw with a little salt, pepper, and lemon juice or stewed in the shell over a wood fire. Diners could wash their oysters down with porter or ale served from a bar that inevitably stretched along one end of the room.

Politics in an Oyster-House, a painting by Woodville, 1848
Politics in an Oyster-House, a painting by Woodville, 1848 (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

Charleston's version of the oyster house was found at street level rather than in a cellar, but the fare was essentially the same. These were strictly male gathering places where ale and liquor flowed freely, and as such they quickly gained unsavory reputations.

A correspondent for the Charleston Courier, in the course of defending "fashionable amusements" like dancing and whist, argued that such pastimes strengthened the social contract and allowed young people to enjoy leisure time together. "The destruction of all places of amusement," he warned, "fills the tavern—the oyster house, and all the worst and most detestable purlieus of Charleston—Is this desireable?"

Despite such approbation, the proprietors of Carolina’s oyster houses were serious about the quality of the shellfish they served, and they sourced their oysters primarily from nearby waters. In Charleston, both David Truesdell and S. B. Burdges regularly received large shipments of between 600 and 1,000 bushels on sloops arriving down the coast from Beaufort, North Carolina, and up from the May River near Bluffton. A bushel contains about 100 oysters, so they must have been shucking a tremendous volume at their oyster houses.

One could say that Charleston is literally built on oysters, for by the 1830s the city’s oyster houses were producing so many empty shells that the proprietors had them carried by the cartload to low lying areas and used as fill. The smell was apparently quite a nuisance, and in 1835 the editor of the Southern Agriculturist advocated that Charleston adopt a recent New York law that forbade throwing shells in the streets or rivers.

The oyster trade was seasonal, hewing to the age-old convention of months with an “r” (that is, September through April.) Early Carolina oyster houses typically shut their doors altogether once warm weather arrived in May and reopened them with much fanfare as soon as cool weather returned in September or October. In May 1825 David Truesdell in Charleston announced that he was offering terrapin soup in place of his normal shellfish and would remain open for the summer, but this experiment must not have paid off. He closed the New York Oyster House each summer in the years that followed.

Charleston’s Oyster King

By the 1830s, David Truesdell had emerged as Charleston's undisputed oyster king. As the name of his oyster house suggests, Truesdell had been born in New York, and he operated an oyster stand in that city through the 1810s. By 1822 he had arrived in Charleston and in October of that year opened the New York Oyster House.

Truesdell wasn’t content with simply purchasing oysters harvested by others. He experimented with creating a hybrid of local "raccoon oysters" and New York varieties, and in 1834 he advertised that he was "negotiating for a Mill Pond for the cultivation of Oysters." Should he succeed, Truesdell noted, he would be able to serve "as good an article as can be procured in any of the Northern cities."

Pond farming apparently didn't pan out, but Truesdell soon had a better idea. Around 1836 he leased two hundred acres of marshland on the eastern end of Sullivans Island and transformed it into a flourishing oyster farm. Borrowing techniques from rice planting, he built brick abutments with floodgates to control the flow of the tide into his beds, which allowed him to cultivate and harvest even during high tides. Truesdell's beds were a tempting target for poachers, and the oyster farmer was reported to have stood guard over his crop with a blunderbuss and a brace of pistols each night when the tide was low.

Truesdell's Charleston business was so lucrative that he opened an outpost of the New-York Oyster House in the state capital of Columbia, a good hundred miles inland. "How little do the gourmands at Columbia," William Gilmore Simms wrote in 1849, "conjecture the toil, the care, the watchful anxiety with which he has reared these young and artless creatures, that they may minister to the delights and appetites of the Statesman and the Politician."

In April 1855, David Truesdell was awarded a diploma at the South Carolina Institute Fair for his “fine specimens of Planted Oysters.” He passed away nine months later at his home above the oyster house at the corner of Queen and Philadelphia Alley. He was buried on Sullivans Island, not far from the oyster beds that won him such acclaim.

From House to Saloon

The Civil War largely brought oyster consumption to a halt in the Carolinas, but the trade resumed with vigor in the decades that followed. An expanding railroad network and the increased availability of ice allowed fresh shellfish to be enjoyed far inland from the coast, and entrepreneurs were soon selling fresh oysters in towns and cities throughout the region.

Over time, the term “oyster saloon” eclipsed “oyster house” as the most common term for these businesses. (The term “oyster bar” didn’t gain currency until after Prohibition, and that was likely due to the negative connotations that “saloon” had gained by that time.)

By the late 1870s, oyster houses or oyster saloons were operating in Goldsboro, Hillsborough, Tarboro, Greensboro, and as far west as Charlotte, which (not coincidentally) was the terminus of the North Carolina Railroad connecting the Piedmont to the eastern part of the state. Down in South Carolina, fresh oysters on the half shell could be had in Newberry and Orangeburg and at a dozen or more restaurants and dedicated oyster saloons in Columbia.

Diners in Columbia had plenty of oyster options in the 1870s
Diners in Columbia had plenty of oyster options in the 1870s (Columbia Daily Phoenix, December 12, 1872)

Apparently not all of these new oyster saloons were hits. A good century and half before Yelp would make such things easy, a diner calling himself J. W. B. (I’m just going to assume he was male) took the trouble of buying a classified ad in the Orangeburg Times-Democrat in order to air his opinions about the town’s latest restaurant (see below).

Early Yelp review from Orangeburg, South Carolina
Early Yelp review from Orangeburg, South Carolina (Times Democrat, December 1, 1881)

Oyster saloons were often connected to a grocery store, as were saloons in general. The temperance movement was just beginning to stir in the South, and there were few restrictions on the sale of alcohol. As a result, the grocery trade was tightly intertwined with liquor sales, saloons, and restaurants. Retail grocers commonly stocked beer, wine, and spirits alongside their other wares, and many added a bar in the back where patrons could enjoy their purchases on premise, Soon they began offering food to go along with the libations, including raw, fried, and stewed oysters, which had long track record of drawing in bar customers.

Groceries weren’t the only businesses in the Carolinas that tacked on oyster bars during this period. In 1872 Edward Williams launched a combination barber shop and oyster saloon in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, declaring, “I will be pleased to serve all who may desire a clean shave, or a nice plate of oysters, as cheaply as can be afforded.”

Publicity on the Half Shell: Restaurant operators in the 19th century knew well the best way to curry favor with the press. In October 1872, the editors of the Columbia Phoenix related that the newspaper’s staff had been “recipients of a delicious treat” from Diercks’s saloon the previous night, “consisting of oysters roast, fried and stewed. Of course, there was something else taken with them besides crackers, pickles, &c.” [21st century oyster bar operators, take note—Ed.]

In the second half of the 19th century, oysters from Carolina waters were still a staple of the region’s oyster saloons. Shellfish from the New River in North Carolina were perhaps the most commonly advertised. Thanks to railroads and ice, though, a national fish and game trade made it possible for inland oyster houses to receive varieties shipped in from much farther away, and Carolina oyster bars routinely advertised prized specimens from Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay, including Lynnhaven Bay oysters, the most esteemed variety of the era.

Oyster lovers in the Carolinas were dining very well, and they didn’t have to be bankers to afford it. Oysters on the half shell sold in those days for 30 cents a dozen, and that was usually a baker’s dozen with an extra thrown in for free.

From Saloon to Bar

By the turn of the 20th century, the popularity of oyster saloons was fading in the Carolinas, and Prohibition appears to have done them in. North Carolina was the first state in the country to declare statewide Prohibition, which went into effect on January 1, 1909, more than a decade before the 18th Amendment established national prohibition. South Carolina had established its Dispensary system, under which the state had a monopoly on all alcohol sales, in 1893, and while many groceries and saloons shifted to being illegal “blind tigers,” the days of the oyster saloon were numbered.

Carolinians never lost their taste for oysters, though, and after Prohibition the renamed “oyster bar” reemerged, often as an adjunct to a restaurant or a hotel coffee shop. At Henry’s, Charleston’s fanciest restaurant from the 1930s until the 1970s, oysters were a constant fixture on the menu, and diners could order them in one of ten different preparations.

Oysters were a long-running staple on the menu at Henry's on Market Street in Charleston
Oysters were a long-running staple on the menu at Henry's on Market Street in Charleston

Increasingly the oysters being served in those establishments were shipped in from the coast of New England and Canada or from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The American mania for oysters in the late 19th century had almost destroyed the beloved shellfish of the mid-Atlantic. In the Carolinas as well as the Chesapeake, hand tongs were replaced by dredges dragged over the beds by steam-powered boats, harvesting oysters in massive quantities but destroying centuries-old beds in the process.

The damage was compounded by urban growth and agricultural expansion, which increased the nutrients and sediment running off into rivers, fueling the growth of algae blooms and creating low-oxygen dead zones that made the shellfish more susceptible to disease. Widespread pollution closed many Carolina waters to oyster harvesting altogether. Since its peak in 1902, when oystermen landed 800,000 bushels, North Carolina has lost an estimated 80% of its historic oyster population

A tray of fresh-shucked North Carolina oysters from Locals in Raleigh's Transfer Co. Food Hall
A tray of fresh-shucked North Carolina oysters from Locals in Raleigh's Transfer Co. Food Hall (Dispatch Staff)

Oyster agriculture, thankfully, has rebounded in the 21st century, as a new generation of oyster producers has embraced mariculture, in which the shellfish are cultivated in open water. The oyster industry in the Carolinas has surged from under a half million dollars in revenue in 2003 to over $8 million today.

Carolinians are increasingly rediscovering the glories of the oyster bar, too. Crisply fried or freshly shucked oysters on the half shell are still the stars, but roasted, stewed, and all manner of other preparations are also coming back as the Carolinas return to one of their longest-running dining institutions.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the founder and publisher of The Southeastern Dispatch as well as the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.