Time to return to the very basics of life: food, and plumbing! Today I’m thinking about oysters, and up next I’ve got a special post on wooden water pipes. Oysters–their harvest, sale, and consumption–have always been big business in Salem: Wellfleet is hardly the only Massachusetts oyster town! At present we have three restaurants which feature oyster bars: the excellent Turner‘s Seafood at the Lyceum, the oddly-named Village Tavern Grill & Oyster Bar, and the relatively new and very popular Sea Level Oyster Bar on Pickering Wharf. In the past, Salem probably had many more oyster establishments that were also actual oyster bars, as this particular commodity has evolved over time from a working man’s food to a bit more of a delicacy. Today, Salem’s many restaurants are spread out across its downtown, from the water to the train station, but in the past they were concentrated in the area around the Old Town Hall or Market House. Derby Square and Front Street today are still busy commercial spaces while an adjacent alley that served as an “Oyster Row” of sorts a century or more ago is now silent: yet Higginson Square still bears the signs of its purveying past.
The large brick commercial buildings on the east side of Higginson Square were built between 1895 and 1915, replacing earlier, smaller structures that served as dining rooms, bars, and wholesale purveyors of oysters and other foodstuffs. Their surviving shop windows indicated that they were functioning as retail establishments in the twentieth century too, but I don’t think this remained a restaurant row. These building have Derby, rather than Higginson, Square addresses now, but the one adorned with the fire escape was the earlier site of the Remond residence/restaurant/and oyster operation at 5 Higginson Square operated by John and Nancy Remond, the parents of Salem’s pioneering African-American abolitionists Charles and Sarah. The spotlight is always on the Remond children (a new park named after them is in the works now) but I’ve always been more interested in their entrepreneurial parents, who operated several businesses in Salem. Surviving advertisements for Remond oysters (“Let them be roasted, stewed, or fried; Or any other way beside; You’ll be well served, or ill betide”) indicate that the North Shore was no longer viable oystering ground in the mid-nineteenth century, as John was bringing in large supplies of oysters from Wellfleet and New York, enough to operate a veritable wholesale monopoly in Salem.
Trade cards from the collection of Salem State University Archives and Special Collections and the Digital Commonwealth–I had to include the Lynn fish! The Remond businesses came a bit too early for these cards. Below–Salem’s 19th century Market Square, where oyster and other eating establishments were clustered. Higginson Square is marked in blue.