As rare and elusive as the Cape May Salt oyster is itself, so is the artfully lithographed baby-blue tin can it once came in.
Manufactured by the F.F. East Co. in Greenwich, New Jersey, it pictures an old bewhiskered sea captain in a black sou’wester, the spit and image of the “Old Salt” himself, nestled snug in the large C of its trade name: Cape May Salts.
In 1902, after a man died from eating a tainted oyster in Atlantic City, newspapers began giving the consumption of oysters such a bad name they never really recovered. And although there were many factors in the oyster’s demise – over-harvesting, poor aquaculture and fast food like the newly invented hot dog – the real culprit was pollution.
In a gallant attempt to convince oyster consumers that oysters were wholesome and tasty and good for you, oyster companies up and down the Eastern Seaboard launched a massive campaign with one goal: to promote the “freshness” of the oysters and the “wholesomeness” of eating them, sort of like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. This campaign included all sorts of advertising and giveaway gimmicks – oyster measuring tapes, oyster rulers, oyster pens and pencils, oyster this and oyster that – to make the oyster more appealing to Americans everywhere. But the chief aid in this decades-long campaign was selling oysters in hermetically sealed tin cans kept “well iced” with beautiful lithographic art that included fancy nude mermaids, Polly Purebred rosy-cheeked maidens, schooners, sloops, Maltese crosses, famous lords, famous chefs and of course the famous “Old Salt” of nautical décor.
These cans were produced starting at the turn of the century, and their production lasted well into the 1950s. But in 1972, the death knell for oysters in any form came when a massive kill occurred that summer, wiping out most natural oyster beds. It was the nail in the coffin. Today the oysters we eat come from aquaculture, farm raised and planted. The oyster truly has made a fantastic comeback and its prices reflect it. In Atlantic City casinos, you can expect to pay up to $10 a piece for a single oyster. In New York City, even more.
Nevertheless, at any given time on eBay, every day, every week, all year long (we’re talking 24-7, around-the-clock, through Christmas, Easter, Father’s Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day), there are almost always between 50 and 60 (or more) different oyster cans up for sale and being aggressively bid on by serious oyster can collectors for big, major bucks. They have eBay screen names like oysterbob, quinconian, and dalmationlady. Although the majority sell for between $30 and $100, they sometimes go for as much as $400, $1,200, and sometimes even as much as $5,000, like the extremely rare Cape May Salts oyster. Only a handful, perhaps four or five, are known to exist.
The splendid oyster can pictured is owned by Richard Gove, who has been collecting oyster cans for 40 years and who just might have the finest collection in the country. It’s really a thing of exquisite beauty and great joy, at least to an avid collector. I’ve always wanted to own one myself. I decided to drive up along the Mullica River to Dick Gove’s house and see it for myself. Dick is, among oyster can collectors, considered to be one of the top three collectors in the country, maybe even number one. These guys turn their homes into museums with these things, and with every single can there comes a long funny story, usually about its price and its origin. Dick says he doesn’t know exactly how much its worth but he’s relatively certain that it will bring far, far more than the $4,000 he paid for it, maybe three times that figure. But he has no plans to sell.
Back in the '80s, the 1980s, at an Atlantique City collectible show, I watched a man lay out 30 Ben Franklins—without batting so much as an eyelash—for an early handmade, hand-soldered oyster tin without any lithographic art on it at all and which was no larger than one of those little boxes of fried rice you get with your Chinese takeout. It was crude, embossed with its maker’s initials and adorned with a tiny wire-bale handle. It turned out the man who bought it was the great-grandson of the maker. I think it was then that I knew just how seriously collectors are about oyster cans.
If you would like to start an oyster can collection, eBay is the place to go, where if you have enough money, you can put a respectable collection together in a few months. But, caveat, buyer beware! You have to know your stuff. There are fakes. There are guys so good with a paint brush, they can take an old beat-up and dented coffee can and make it look like new. And furthermore, if you want to have a Cape May Salts oyster tin, be ready to take out a second mortgage on your home. Since eBay’s inception, a Cape May Salts oyster can like this one has never been seen.
Text and photographs by James Kirk. Oyster cans courtesy of Richard Gove.
This article first appeared in the August issue of Cape May Magazine. For more on Cape May Salts, pick up a copy.