Chicago has had a long and storied history with oysters (Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune )
"'Oysters' is the inviting sign on a basement saloon at the corner of Wabash avenue and Twenty-second street. Mr. George H. Smith is its proprietor. And daily between midnight and cockcrow, there come sounds of revelry there-from bearing testimony to the quality of oysters and the abundance of the cheer." —From "Oysters and Wine at 2 A. M.," Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 4, 1888
With the advent of ice-bearing "refrigerated" train cars rolling in to Chicago in 1852, oysters arrived by the barrel. Wholesale and retail oyster depots like James M. Belden (216 Randolph Street) took out classified ads trumpeting their "warranted of best quality" oysters. Another merchant, J. A. Burlingames (74 State St.) boasted of "FAIR HAVEN OYSTERS in kegs and cans of the finest quality. Received daily …"
And, as the above quote about George Smith's restaurant attests, by the 1880s, Chicago had late-night oyster "saloons." It was awash with them, the most famous being Boston Oyster House at Madison and Clark streets, and Rector's on the corner of Clark and Monroe. Proprietor Charles Rector learned the trade as a cashier at the Boston Oyster House, and his subsequent namesake oyster restaurant was immortalized in Theodore Dreiser's celebrated Chicago-based novel, "Sister Carrie."
Though oysters made a splash in Chicago in the mid-1850s, they have been human fodder since pre-historic times. Romans cultured oysters in the fourth century, and oysters were all the rage in 15th century England. Oysters' influence was so fierce that Shakespeare wrote, "Why then the world's mine oyster/Which I with sword will open" in his play "The Merry Wives of Windsor." In another Shakespearian play, Richard II said, "Off goes his bonnet to an oyster wench," to describe King Richard's cousin Henry Bolingbroke's populist bent.
Oyster wenches, you say? Indeed, women selling oysters from street stands or walking around with tubs of crustaceans were common in 15th century London. These vendors were considered low-class, and dubbed wenches because they were considered loose of morals because of their closeness to oysters, which even back then were thought to contain aphrodisiac qualities. As legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote in her book "Consider the Oyster," "any Western man with a few cents in his pocket and a little time on his hands can swallow a certain amount of phosphorous [a nutritious component of oysters], and it is still good as long as the oysters are fresh and clean, whether it goes to nourish his brain, his belly, or his most private parts."