Now there's money in old, collectible tin oysters pails

Jacques Kelly

March 22, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Ah, shucks! You could dine on oysters Rockefeller tonight if you'd saved your grandmother's old tin pails.

Not just any tin container, but the ones that held the oysters put up by the dozens of Baltimore canning houses a century ago.

Better yet, an old cardboard ad for a forgotten Baltimore seafood packer is worth more than an oyster's pearl.

Consider the 1890s grocery store placard due for public auction next week. The colorful lithographed ad with the Battle Monument as its centerpiece promotes Wm. Taylor's Monumental Brand oysters. And, even though its right side has been cut away, it could fetch anywhere from $400 to $3,000.

The market for Baltimore and Maryland-related oyster collectibles has turned competitive, with a handful of collectors willing to pay handsome sums for oyster tins, ads and even old letterheads for the fruits of Chesapeake Bay.

"The Baltimore-Washington corridor is a great market for auctions," said Howard Parzow, the Gaithersburg auctioneer who is handling the sale of the oyster ad at the Frederick Fairgrounds March 30.

Collectors believe that if the Monumental Brand ad were in perfect condition it might bring more than $3,000.

"People stayed away from saving old oyster tins. When you thought of oysters you thought gooey and icky," Parzow said.

The ad, consigned to the auction by a private collector, turned up some years ago on the Eastern Shore. It was used as cardboard backing to frame a dog's picture.

Fred Parks, an Allentown, Pa., seafood restaurant owner, is the author of the "Celebrated Oyster House Cook Book," illustrated with fine examples of oyster art from his own extensive collection.

There are about 50 collectors who aggressively seek out "major" oyster artifacts, he said. Of these, three or four will pay high-roller prices for desirable pieces like the Monumental Brand ad.

"There are active and enthusiastic collectors who will drive up the price. But after they've had their pick of choice items, the rest just sit on the dealers' shelves and collect dust," Parks said.

In Baltimore's heyday as an oyster-packing center, there were some 290 packers dotting the harbor. Many employed women and children for minimal wages to work in the cold and wet corridors. The shucked oysters were packed in pints, quarts and gallon tins, iced, and shipped by rail across the country.

Some local brands were Mallory's Diamond Brand, J.H. Collison's Excellent Brand, H. McWilliam Celebrated Express Brand and Louis Crebb's Baltimore Belle. Some of the old oyster tins were embossed; others were lithographed in color.

"Like anything that's mass-produced, millions may have been made, but if there's only one around, it's worth a lot. The oyster ads are beautiful as artwork. They are fantastic Victorian drawings," said Dennis Zembala, director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, whose Key Highway headquarters was itself the Platt & Co. oyster cannery.

"I've been collecting oyster tins and ads for 20 years for the pleasure. I don't go along with all these high prices. I'm not really a player in that. The fun is in the search for a great old tin," said Craig Hasslinger, the fourth generation of his family to operate a Baltimore seafood business. His current operation is in the 5800 block of Hillen Road.

"It's funny. The Hasslingers never had their own oyster cans. We shucked our own fresh and sold them in white cardboard cylinders. And that gave away to plastic," Hasslinger said.

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