Codfish Aristocracy

Growing up in York, Maine, my focus was increasingly over the river and out of state once I hit my teens, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a larger town with a mall, movie theaters, downtown shops, and lots and lots of restaurants. As I’ve said before, I think I ended up in Salem in large part because of its similarity to Portsmouth, and its greater proximity to Boston (now Salem surely has more restaurants, but fewer shops). For some reason which I can’t remember, my favorite restaurant in Portsmouth has always been The Oar House, which still exists, but a close second was The Codfish Aristocracy, which is long gone. I had very little historical curiosity then, as well as very little regard for American history, so I never questioned the name; only later did I delve into the origins of this interesting idiom. Since I have cod on the brain this week, I decided to delve into it a bit more, and of course, in this year of discovering all sorts of legacies of slavery, here is another one. I think there are several connections, actually. As a general reference to the New England aristocracy of families whose “new” wealth was based on the Atlantic fisheries and trade to both the West Indies and Europe, the term predates the nineteenth century; after all the original “sacred cod” was placed in the old Colonial State House in the early eighteenth century and the present one dates from 1798. Salem even has a claim for the origins of the term, based on the cod embellishment on the stairs in Colonel Benjamin Pickman’s beautiful Georgian mansion on Essex Street, built in 1756. A lithograph of this house was included in the materials chosen by a special Essex Institute committee to represent Salem at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, when it was “still standing though defaced by shops in front. It is said that the term “Codfish Aristocracy” arose from the fact that the end of each stair in the hall of this was house was ornamented with gilded codfish, Colonel Pickman’s fortune being derived from the fisheries”.

Cod in State House Griffin DC

Pendleton PickmanArthur Griffin photograph of the Sacred Cod in the State House, 1950s; The Pickman House by Pendleton’s Lithography, Digital Commonwealth & Boston Athenaeum.

New England cod fed both enslaved Africans and free Europeans and thus created great wealth in New England, but the derisive use of the term “Codfish Aristocracy”, in reference to the ostentatious and vulgar display of that wealth, comes later, in the 1840s and 1850s, and most prominently in the debate over slavery. He was not the originator of the phrase, but when Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina remarked that We should regard it somewhat strange if we should require a codfish aristocracy to keep us in order in the midst of a speech on the floor of the Senate in the summer of 1850, it seemed to hit a chord. As a leading pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist voice, Butler drew heated criticism from Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who indicted Butler as both “the Don Quixote of slavery,” and an admirer of “the harlot, Slavery” in his own Senate speech in May of 1856: in retaliation Butler’s cousin Preston S. Brooks responded by caning Sumner on the Senate floor days later, instigating his three-year incapacitation. In the following year, after Senator Clement Claiborne Clay introduced a bill repealing all laws allowing bounties to vessels employed in the fisheries under the rationale that 25 states were made to pay tribute to the Codfish Aristocracy of a mere six, papers in Massachusetts opined that “southern hatred of New England” was his true motivation.

Somewhere between the absolute disdain conveyed by the southern use of the term and the occasional pride displayed in the North was the New York attitude: more mockery than condemnation. There are three caricatures of the Codfish Aristocracy that represent this perspective well in the collection of the Library Collection of Philadelphia: literal representations are always an effective form of censure!

Codfish LC

Codfish LC 2

Codfish Aristocracy LC 3Three Codfish Aristocrats: McAllister Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, c. 1840-1880.

13 responses to “Codfish Aristocracy

  • dccarletonjr

    Nicely done, Donna!

    I enjoyed the caricatures, although contra the poem beneath the first image, no true “Codfish aristocrat” would come from Cape Cod–it’s strictly a North Shore species if I’m not very much mistaken!

  • ninacohenenskiNina

    This 19th C. political discourse is weirdly Trumpey. The term Codfish Aristocracy is so memorable, like Pocahontas. The thrust is ad hominem — because who should keep whom “in order” implies a true aristocracy comes from land-ownership, not other wealth — a distraction from the underlying issue. Finally, the pictures are misogynistic. They’re depictions of opulent dames with fishheads guaranteed to raise the blood pressure by attacking the attractiveness of the opponent’s women. Surreal. A politics of misogyny and belittling that exacerbated the political divide. In the end our differences couldn’t be bridged. Did this discourse contribute to the breakdown? (Along with the public caning of a Senator on the Senate floor.)

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Such an interesting piece. Curious that the phrase “codfish aristocracy” uttered in derision by South Carolina Senator Butler provoked the rebuttal by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner that soon led to the latter’s enduring such a vicious, retaliatory attack. I have read about the Sumner’s caning many times, but never heard of the “codfish” reference.

    Your pics of the “Three Codfish Aristocrats” from the Mc Allister collection lightened up the subject nicely…


  • Glenn McDonald

    Hi Donna,

    In re; fine codfish dining,I miss Portsmouth’s Blue Strawberry, in Strawberry Banke. Lovely place; they were always too hoighty toighty to serce anything as plain fried cod.

    In Salem, There were the three seafood joints, Swenbeck’s, Ebsen’s and The Chase House. The Chase House burned three years before I was born. all located in the area of what is now the Grassy patch
    South of everything else at Salem Willows. I remember the fried haddock fondly at the other two, but for some reason, entirely unknown to me, I also remember that both places served on ancient Fiestaware.

    • daseger

      Glenn—wasn’t the Blue Strawberry on Ceres Street near the Harbor; there was another Strawberry Restaurant–Strawberry Court–where I went before my junior prom–near Strawbery Banke. What a nice memory of fiestaware!

      • Glenn McDonald

        As I recall, it was at No. 6 Ceres ST. I discovered it around 1972. It was long gone when I went looking for it a few years back. As most cult-restaurants do, it left behind a nice little cookbook, a copy of which I have. I recommend the carrots in a root beer glaze, one of the Strawberry’s staples.

      • daseger

        Oooh, I didn’t know there was a cookbook! I’m going to look out for that!

      • Glenn McDonald

        The dj’s a fellow seated, comtemplating a blue strawberry.

  • Eilene Lyon

    Fascinating! You’ve landed a great story

  • PatrickStory

    My grandpa Edwin Boomer Story, b. Chicago, 1870, sometimes used this term derisively as I recall from my boyhood. I never asked him about it. He was orphaned and all birth records were lost in the great Chicago fire of 1871 (along with his parents?), and so we know nothing of his parents. I’d love to learn more about their origins–Maybe Mass.?

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    On a lighter note, reference to the codfish lingered into the 20th century. Here is an excerpt from a little piece I did years ago about the 1936 battle for the Senate between James Michael Curley and Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge:

    Curley once said that the term “codfish aristocracy” was a “negative reflection on the revered fish in the Commonwealth.”

    During the campaign, Curley told a crowd in Springfield: “You young Republicans have no more chance to join the Somerset Club than I have, if your ancestors didn’t get rich in the first two or three generations by selling opium to the Chinese, rum to the Indians, or getting into the slave racket.”

    Curley called Cabot a “young man who parts both his name and his hair in the middle.” He described Lodge as “Little Boy Blue,” that is, “blue-blooded, handsome, and a boy.”

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