Pirates, Prostitutes, and the Search for a Respectable Oyster Saloon in the Lone Star State
by Carrie Allen Tipton
Portioning and occupying public space in the United States in the last half of the nineteenth century was, unsurprisingly, a heavily gendered enterprise. Victorians on both sides of the pond constructed a particular type of respectability that they esteemed above all other social values. White bourgeois women, treated as easily tainted, morally fragile beings that must be insulated from undesirable persons, embodied this respectability. Victorian society expended great effort in the ordering of public space to limit middle- and upper-class women’s contact with The Unsuitable: males who were not family members and anyone of lower-class and/or non-white background. As Americans created increasingly more public space, both commercial and non-commercial, Victorian social values played themselves out graphically in the geography of the commons. For instance, historian Abigail Van Slyck documents the development in the late nineteenth century of separate ladies’ reading rooms at public libraries, efforts borne of the obsession with shielding the worthy from assaults on their finely-tuned moral and aesthetic sensibilities.
The increase of restaurant dining in the era thus launched urgent questions: When could middle- and upper-class women dine out? Where? With whom? What should they eat? (The conservative South would have been particularly obsessed with these issues; Marcie Cohen Ferris describes the rigid codification of gender norms around southern foodways in her New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture article “Gender and Food,” Vol. 7, Foodways.) As historian Paul Freedman shows, Victorian restaurateurs across the country faced these problems head-on. Some restaurants created separate female-only dining rooms. (When chaperoned by husbands or male relatives, women could typically use the main dining room.) Just before the Civil War, restaurants also began to target female clientele with food items thought to appeal to them. Ads mentioning light meals, confectionaries, ice cream, and tea telegraphed that the establishments in question preserved and reinforced the prevailing social order. (Freedman points out that “ice cream” was usually code for “alcohol-free premises.”) Often these “safe spaces” were located near department stores, patronized by women who conducted more and more of their consumer transactions in public or by the swelling ranks of female store clerks. In fact, according to Freedman, by 1900, luncheon establishments in the U.S. served primarily women.
Enter the oyster saloon, a dining destination that flourished near the wharves of the coastal South and which struggled with a major PR problem. Often located close to unsavory commercial enterprises (alcohol, prostitution) associated with port cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, and Galveston, oyster saloons could be rough places. Contemporary newspapers from Galveston (for example) brim with accounts of murders, assaults, and robberies conducted in oyster saloons. A satirical 1878 article in the Galveston Daily News details typical oyster saloon activities: the brandishing of six shooters, fiddling, and “cassino” games, all of which were enjoyed by patrons of undesirable class and ethnic associations. In 1874, reports the same paper, a “quarrelsome” man was stabbed in the stomach at Tony Campora’s oyster saloon on Market Street by a “young Italian musician” after he “gave vent to some inflammatory remarks.” In 1879, in an unnamed Galveston oyster saloon, an out-of-towner grabbed a patron by the throat and forcibly divested him of $170. 1887 court proceedings describe an 1884 shooting in Mathena’s oyster saloon, also in Galveston. In 1886, word had spread of an oyster saloon in New York City that operated as a front for a brothel, reported in the Galveston Daily News under the salacious title “The Sinners of New York.” And as late as the mid-1850s, pirates—including some associated with the notorious Jean Lafitte—were known to patronize the oyster saloons of Galveston, paying with gold doubloons.
If this weren’t enough, one can only imagine the odors attendant on the purveying of mollusks—even in colder months—on the Gulf coast in an era predating electricity. The Galveston Daily News printed the following public ordinance, adopted on June 4, 1877 (the peak of summer!): “Resolved…that every proprietor, lease or occupant of any oyster house, oyster stand, saloon or other premises where oysters or shell fish are consumed, used or sold, or where any refuse matters or shells thereof accumulate, shall daily cause all such shells and refuse matters to be removed therefrom to some proper place, and shall keep said house, stand, saloon or other premises at all times free from any offensive smells or accumulations.” In 1863, a Confederate officer mentioned offhandedly in his dispatches having visited a “perfectly respectable oyster saloon” in New Orleans, implying that the unlikelihood of such an establishment merited mention. Clearly, the oyster saloon failed spectacularly to pass even minimal litmus tests governing gender, respectability, and public space.
But oyster saloon owners fought back, and surviving newspaper advertisements preserve some of the strategies they used to angle for reputable female clientele. Like other restaurants targeting women, oyster saloons advertised ice cream, a marketing dog whistle. They took pains to clarify that they served “ladies and gentlemen.” They mentioned doing things in “style.” A December 1874 ad in the Galveston Daily News is representative: “Christmas is coming, and families wishing cakes can get them by calling on J.H. FORBES, who is prepared to make and ornament Cakes to order. Ice-cream made to order. Cake Ornaments, Christmas Tree Ornaments, fine Confectionaries and fruits of all kinds always on hand. Also, OYSTER SALOON Where Ladies and Gentlemen can be served with Oysters, Coffee, Chocolate, Tea, and home-made Pies of the best quality, and in the best style. Please give me a call, opposite the Post-Office.” The gendered buzzwords (chocolate, tea, confectionaries) communicate to the potential female patron that no pirate or prostitute will get between her and her oysters at J.H. Forbes’s saloon.Earlier in 1874 Forbes had advertised his grand opening thus: “J.H. Forbes has fitted up his Saloon for the accommodation of ladies and gentlemen who may wish to refresh themselves with a nice plate of Oysters, served up in the best style. Also, Coffee, Chocolate and Tea, fine Confectionaries and Fruits. Open until 11 p.m. Opposite the post office.” In 1882, R. Krugers hit similar high notes when he advertised his “Confectionary, Restaurant, Coffee and Oyster Saloon. 67 Market Street, a few doors west of the Galveston Opera-house. A quiet retreat where lunches are served promptly at moderate prices.” In September 1887, a man described his Galveston oyster saloon as “first-class” in the real estate sales column. Numerous ads for Galveston oyster saloons emphasized similar themes.
Did it work? Maybe; maybe not. The hapless oyster saloon appears to have accumulated some respectability, nominal perhaps, with the passage of time. In 1881, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner documents in her book Women, Culture, and Community—Religion and Reform in Galveston, 1880 – 1920, a woman owned one oyster saloon in the city. In 1887, a Houston city council meeting held an official meeting at Lang’s oyster saloon, presumably a decent sort of place. At the same time, however, the Galveston Daily News records that a “beer and oyster saloon” was destroyed in the 1885 fire, a reminder that not all such businesses coveted bourgeois approval. And as Aimeé Schmidt and Frances Abbott document in their “Oyster” article in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (Vol. 7, Foodways), the new century saw the mollusk’s continued association with the sensual, figuring as an amorous trope in pop songs such as Fats Waller’s “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew” and the Old South Quartette’s “Oysters and Wine at 2 a.m.” Noted food writer M.F.K. Fisher opened her 1941 book Consider the Oyster with the following: “An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion and danger.” Like the bivalve it served, the oyster saloon in Victorian coastal Texas seems to have been all at once dreadful and exciting, full of stress, passion, danger—and, for the right patrons, ice cream.
Carrie Allen Tipton specializes in American music, religion and Southern culture. She currently writes for Houston food magazine My Table.