“When lobster was fertiliser” – What we can learn from old restaurant menus

Glenn Jones, of Texas A&M University, is a palaeo-oceanographer—an archaeologist of the oceans. He investigates both the mysteries of the deep and the secrets of the past. He and a colleague once estimated the temperature of the sea floor a century ago by studying the “isotopic composition” of mollusc shells. His latest method of inquiry, on show this week at the “Oceans Past” conference in Kolding, Denmark, is a little easier to understand. He reads old seafood menus. Lots of them. Mr Jones reckons he and his team have trawled through 40,000 or so, dating back as far as the 1850s.
Why? His menus, mostly from American cities on either coast, have allowed him to track the price of seafood back 150 years, much further than anyone has gone before. The menus show that the bountiful seas of centuries past have become more miserly in recent decades. From the early 1920s to the late 1930s, for example, a San Francisco restaurant would charge only $6-7, in today’s money, for a serving of abalone, a type of mollusc. By the 1980s, however, abalone was selling for $30-40 a meal. The collapse of abalone stocks prompted a 1997 ban on commercial harvesting off California’s coast.

When lobster was fertiliser,” The Economist, October 27, 2005

Seafood prices collected from U.S. restaurant menus dating to the 1850s will help plot the shifting harvest of marine species, according to a study to be announced at Oceans Past a Census of Marine Life conference in Denmark on the History of Marine Animal Populations.
Led by paleo-oceanographer Glenn Jones at Texas A&M University at Galveston, researchers are charting over 150 years of inflation-adjusted seafood prices from menus, most from cities such as New York, Boston and San Francisco. The menus shed light on shifting tastes for and supplies of such popular seafood as lobster, swordfish, abalone, oysters, halibut, haddock and sole.

Restaurant seafood prices since 1850s help plot marine harvests through history,” by Terry Collins, press release, EureakAlert, October 23, 2005

Oyster shells from Hampton, VA circa 1915

Oyster shells from Hampton, VA circa 1915. Oyster harvests from Chesapeake Bay are only 4% of what they were at the beginning of the 20th century.
Oyster shells from Long Island, 1932 dated postcard.

Oyster shells from Long Island, 1932 dated postcard.
Inflation adjusted price of abalone in San Francisco restaurants

Abalone The Inflation adjusted price of abalone in San Francisco restaurants. Abalone does not appear on menus examined to date from the 1870’s to the early 1920’s. From the early 1920’s to the late 1930’s the price closely tracked the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This inflation-adjusted chart shows prices flat at a 2004 equivalent of about $7.00 until the late 1930’s and a second jump in inflation-adjusted prices in the late 1950’s. Since the late 1950’s the price of abalone has risen 7 to 10 times faster than inflation.
inflation adjusted (2004$) prices of raw oysters from New York and Massachusetts restaurant menus

Raw Oysters Inflation-adjusted prices of raw oysters. Raw oysters have been popular on restaurant menus for over 150 years. Here we show the inflation adjusted (2004$) prices from New York and Massachusetts restaurant menus. Note that the price very closely followed the inflation rate from the 1850s to the 1950s, after which the inflation-adjusted price jumped 2x in less than 10 years. Inflation-adjusted prices have been stable for much of the past 40 years.
inflation-adjusted prices of swordfish

Swordfish Inflation-adjusted prices of swordfish. Despite the start of a swordfish fishery in the 1880’s, no restaurant menu entry for swordfish is seen prior to 1909. The large pelagic swordfish had stable inflation-adjusted prices until the mid 1950’s, after which they rose rapidly. Prices rose three times faster than inflation until the late 1970’s, after which they appear to have slightly fallen.
 Inflation-adjusted price of lobster.

Lobster Inflation-adjusted price of lobster (normalized to 1 pound). Prior to 1880 lobster meals were rarely offered but lobster salad was common. Prices rise faster than inflation starting in the 1860’s, a trend continued until the mid/late 1920’s. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the inflation-adjusted price fell but from the 1950’s to the 1970’s it again exceeded inflation. In years since then the inflation-adjusted price has remained stable or fallen slightly.
Images and text from “Restaurant Seafood Prices Since 1850s Help Plot Marine Harvests Through History,” Census on Marine Life, October 23, 2005

“Before the 1880s, it was unusual to see lobster on menus,” said Jones. “It was considered trash fish that people didn’t want.”

“Sea scallops don’t show up on the menus until the 1940s,” Jones said. “Before that, it was all bay scallops on menus. Now, bay scallops are pretty rare and the ones you get are real small.”

“In the 1970s and 1980s, orange roughie starts showing up on menus,” Jones said. “But it’s a very slow-growing species and they were harvesting it much faster than the species could replace itself so it’s becoming commercially extinct.”

Fishing boats simply shifted from chasing roughie in waters around New Zealand and Australia to pursuing Chilean sea bass in the southern Pacific and southern Indian oceans.

“They just moved on to another species,” Jones said, citing catch statistics. “Now, the same thing is happening with the Chilean sea bass.”

Catch of the day: seafood trends – A Texas A&M oceanographer is poring over menus to analyze fishing,” by Kevin Moran, Houston Chronicle, October 23, 2005

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  1. “When lobster was fertiliser” – What we can learn from old restaurant menus

    Glenn Jones, of Texas A&M University, is a palaeo-oceanographer—an archaeologist of the oceans. He investigates both the mysteries of the deep and the secrets of the past. He and a colleague once estimated the temperature of the sea floor a…

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