The Remarkable Story of How Lobster Went From Being Used as Fertilizer to a Beloved Delicacy

Analyzing the top news stories across the web
Aug. 18 2013 9:15 AM

The Remarkable Story of How Lobster Went From Being Used as Fertilizer to a Beloved Delicacy

Colonists and Native Americans used these "cockroaches of the sea" as fish bait.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This post originally appeared in Business Insider.

By Megan Willett


It's time to eat all of the fresh lobster, seafood, and summer fare we can before Labor Day. But here's something to think about while downing every lobster roll in sight before summer's end—our beloved shellfish was once a throw-away food.

Back when the first European settlers reached North America, they wrote that lobsters were so plentiful that piles up to two feet high would wash ashore in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Instead of this leading to epic clam bakes with buckets filled with butter, the colonists were embarrassed by these unsightly "cockroaches of the sea." In fact, lobsters were so plentiful and undesirable that they were commonly used as fertilizer and fish bait by Native Americans and colonists alike. Their abundance also meant colonists had easy access to protein during bad seasons or harvests, so lobster quickly garnered a reputation as the poor man's meal. They were fed to prisoners, apprentices, and slaves as a way to save money.

But all that changed during the mid-1800s because of two things—canned food and railway transportation. People living in the center of the country could now buy cheap canned lobster, which became one of the most popular canned products on the market. They could also afford reasonably-priced train tickets and take trips out to coastal American cities. Fresh lobster was suddenly popular with early New England tourists. Because of the new demand, restaurants started serving the food and recipe books began describing the best way to poach and cook lobster. Lobster had become a commodity instead of a nuisance. Prices began surging in the 1880s.

By World War II, lobster was considered a delicacy. Due to its new status, it was not rationed by the U.S., and the wartime economy allowed wealthy patrons to consume lobster and shellfish at unprecedented rates. And we haven't slowed down since. Today, even when market prices are low, restaurants and food trucks can still charge a premium on their lobster dishes. And that's the story of how trains, tourism, and canned foods made a fertilizer into a gourmet treat.

See also:



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

An Iranian Woman Was Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist. Can Activists Save Her?

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

We Need to Talk: A Terrible Name for a Good Women’s Sports Show


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.


How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The U.S. Has a New Problem in Syria: The Moderate Rebels Feel Like We’ve Betrayed Them

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now, at Least.

Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 2:08 PM We Need to Talk: Terrible Name, Good Show
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Oct. 1 2014 1:53 PM Slate Superfest East How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 2:24 PM The New Interstellar Trailer Is the Most Exciting Yet
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 2:26 PM The Apple Graveyard Leave a flower for a dead Apple product.
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 2:36 PM Climate Science Is Settled Enough The Wall Street Journal’s fresh face of climate inaction.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.