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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Memorabilia of Bay's Heyday Selling Well


Joe Parlett, owner of Keeper's, holds two of his favorite oyster cans, both with custom labels. The can on the left comes from the Leonard Copsey Oyster Co. Copsey's wife, Josephine, drew the waterman on the label. The can on the right comes from Shorter's Place in Benedict.

Staff photo by JOANNE MALENE

Banagan holds oyster cans from Capt. Sam's Seafood in Bushwood and the Potomac View, which also operated in St. Mary's County.

The first sign of sunshine and warm weather motivates many people to clean their garage or storage area, throwing away old trash like rags, jars or paint cans.

But, before you heave that old paint can, take a good look to see if it was meant to hold paint – or oysters.

And, if you find an old oyster tin, there are a couple of fellows who would like to talk with you.

Joe Parlett, owner of Keeper's in New Market, has been collecting, buying and selling oyster cans for a long time.

Parlett grew up in St. Mary's County with parents who had the antique collecting bug. He started going to auctions with them, buying fishing lures for $8 to $10 each. When prices of lures started going up, he switched to oyster cans.

"I sell crabbing supplies and sometimes I would see oyster cans being used as paint buckets," Parlett said. "So, I told my wife I was going to start collecting oyster cans. I started talking to people and trying to learn as much as I could about cans."

Originally, oysters were packed in stoneware crocks and in glass jars. During the Civil War, oysters were packed in plain square tins. After the war, oysters were packed in plain round metal cans. Paper labels and then embossed labels were added as a marketing device. Cans from before World War II have bail handles on them.

According to Parlett, by the late 1960s, local oyster packing companies had given up packing oysters in metal cans. Most companies began using plastic tubs because they were less expensive and easier to store.

"There were two different types of tin cans used, stock cans and custom cans," he said. "A stock can had a generic label, maybe one that was used by a number of different companies. To get a custom can, a company had to pay thousands of dollars for the graphics and then had to buy 2,000 or more of the cans. A lot of small packers couldn't afford to pay that."

The graphics or picture on the can, the condition and the name on the can all entice a buyer.

"Everyone had the same product — it's all oysters," said Parlett.

"But, look at the different cans — some have mermaids, some have boats, some have Native Americans on the labels. The graphics alone can make you want to buy their product. When I started collecting, I just wanted a can with a boat on it."

Jimmy Banagan of Abell is another oyster can collector.

"I had a janitorial company and we were cleaning out a garage," Banagan said. "I noticed the guy had cans with `Capt. Sam's Oysters' on it and it caught my eye. Now, I collect oyster cans, oyster knives, crab cans — anything to do with seafood."

Like Parlett, Banagan collects cans because of the graphics.

"Every can is different — and every one of them has a different story," Banagan said.

"The most colorful ones go for the biggest money. Good cans are hard to find. Sometimes you find cans and they are filled with nails and screws.

"When I first started collecting them, people would give them to you," Banagan said with a little smile. "If I had started collecting 10 years before I did, I would have been good."

According to Banagan and Parlett, there used to be about 75 oyster companies in St. Mary's County. Now, it is an industry that has largely died.

Starting in 1925, according to "It Ain't Like It Was Then," a book written by Richard J. Dodds and Robert J. Hurry and published by the Calvert Marine Museum, health permit numbers were required on all cans.

If someone got sick eating oysters, the health department would be able to track where the oysters originated. Each facility had its own number.

"It is a wonder more people didn't get sick from eating oysters," Banagan said. "Some of the early tins were sealed with lead solder. When they opened the can, the solder would drip down onto the oysters."

When local companies went out of business, many of them destroyed their cans. Parlett said companies were worried that someone else, who might possibly have bad oysters, would use the cans.

"When they got out of the business, they got out of the business," Parlett said. "Some of these older oystermen don't even have one of the cans with their name on it."

Labeled oyster cans are not limited to companies that were located around the Chesapeake Bay; they can be found in Michigan, Ohio and even Iowa, Parlett said. In the early 20th century, oysters were harvested in Southern Maryland, trucked to and shucked in Baltimore, then packed in big cans and sent all over the country. Companies would repack the oysters in their own cans.

Prices for oyster cans with labels in good condition can range from a couple of dollars to thousands of dollars. The rarity and condition of the can drives the market.

Parlett said he knows hundreds of oyster can collectors, some with more than 2,000 cans in their collections.

"Everyone wants them all," he said. "We trade, we shop and we barter. I think the part I enjoy the most about collecting is getting the story behind it. People would say, `Are you still looking for oyster cans? Well, so and so has one.' I am kind of picky — I don't deal with rust buckets. Condition is everything. If you are a collector, you are always willing to upgrade, to find a better can."

Banagan said that local antique shops and even eBay are good sources for cans.

"The competition to find them is terrible," Banagan said.

"There are the high rollers, or people with lots of money, who can spend what they want to get a can. Sometimes you can find cans on eBay, and then someone comes in and outbids you. That can be frustrating. But there are still good cans out there."


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