August 25, 2019

SlackWater Explores Bay Oyster’s History

SlackWater Explores Bay Oyster's History

The SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work is published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online and some published here. The work below was first published in SlackWater Volume IV: Crassostrea virginica in spring 2004.

Slackwater draws its name from a natural occurrence, a moment of calm before the tide reverses course. Volume IV was a special edition, one marking several shifts in direction. First of all, it marked a catastrophic moment in the Chesapeake Bay’s ecology. With the loss of the oyster to over-harvesting and disease came a host of other losses, including water quality, biodiversity, and a vast store of cultural knowledge.

James Banagan had been a mentor to SlackWater’s editors and writers. He shared his collection of oyster cans (shown in the photos above and below). Once strictly utilitarian in value, these artifacts are now prized for their aesthetics and historic meaning.

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The Banagan Collection

Photographs by David Emerick

Beginning in the 1920s commercial artists designed the oyster can labels seen here in local examples culled from Jim Banagan’s extraordinary collection. Lithographers printed the designs on metal strips to can bodies wide and two long, four can bodies to each metal sheet. a can manufacturer then cut the sheets apart, formed the body, and attached the top and bottom rims. Most cans were printed in one or two colors; three color graphics were more expensive as each color was printed separately.oysters-aa

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Slackwater Oysters

Many oyster packers used generic designs or had their company name superimposed on a stock design. Each company’s packing house number was included on the label and appeared on the back of the can or was embossed on the can. The gallon can without a bail handle became widely used after World War II. The earliest cans had a fill hole in the lid instead of the friction-top, paint-can lid featured here. By 1975 plastic and tin containers were both in use. Today, clear, durable K-resin containers are used in mostly 8 and 12 ounces.

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The Slackwater Center

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