Think about this the next time you’re out at your favorite local seafood restaurant enjoying an expensive lobster platter. The lobster hasn’t always been considered a delicacy like it is today.
In Colonial America, lobsters were so plentiful on the shores of the northeastern United States that they were called the “poor man’s protein” or the “cockroach of the sea.” Because of their utter abundance, they were fed to prisoners and servants, eaten by the poor, and having a shell in a house was looked upon as a sign of poverty. Native Americans even used lobsters as fertilizer. The lobster had such a bad reputation that servants made stipulations in their contracts that they wouldn’t be forced to eat lobster more than three times a week.
So what events made the change from lobster as a “trash” food and turned them into a fancy delicacy? It started with the success of the canning industry in 1840, which allowed the growing demand for Maine lobster to be met in other areas along the east coast. Factories began to spring up in the coastal cities, where four to five-pound lobsters were thought of as small, and two-pound lobsters were thrown out since the meat was considered not worth the effort to remove.
But by 1880, the canneries were having to use half-pound lobsters to fill the cans, which brought about much needed conservation and law enforcement efforts. Canned lobster was still considered a cheap food, but this was about to change, and the demand for the crustaceans spread next because of the railroads.
When the railways began marketing and serving low-priced lobster as an exotic item to passengers who had no idea that it was considered less than ideal, lobster demand began to shoot up. Demand increased as people got a taste for it, and prices went up as the popularity of freshly cooked lobster grew. The price of lobster hit its first peak in the 1920s, but the Great Depression caused another decline in the lobster’s reputation for a short time.
When World War II began, lobster wasn’t rationed like other foods, and its popularity began to increase again. By the 1950s, it was firmly entrenched as a delicacy and has stayed there ever since. So it seems canning and the railroads are to blame for the high price of a nice lobster dinner.