Papers presented by Sally Clarke since 2019

2023 Detroit, MI, United States

"Nature in a Can: Chesapeake Bay Oysters and the American Can Company, 1900-1940"

Sally Clarke, University of Texas, Austin


This paper is a snapshot of on-going research. Visit the Chesapeake and you don’t know what nature might showcase: a groundhog, a fox, hawks, songbirds, the occasional woodpecker, the still more occasional wild turkey; and in a photo affixed to my refrigerator, 4 eagles behave like vultures. In 1900, the Bay also was home to huge numbers of fish species—my favorite, the sturgeon—and of course, millions of oysters. Oysters’ story can be recounted several ways, my version concerns pollution and public policy—invention, too. I trace pollution linked to tin cans to 3 problems: lead in cans (toxic); oysters as a food source; and typhoid fever—a disease oysters transmitted from living in sewage-infested waters. With gratitude to many researchers, I learned that invention was a critical factor in resolving two of the three problems. For example, as food scholars tell us, Charles M. Ams deserves accolades for his (lead-free) tin can; as late as 1937, the Census Bureau called it “the sanitary can.” I also highlight bans, public investments, and government initiatives. The Maryland State Board of Health conducted the most intriguing, complex, and difficult job in abating wastes. Among closing points, perhaps the one that most concerns me is this: You can watch creatures around the Chesapeake without fully understanding their perils from a consumer-led economy. Whether eagles or oysters or some other species, none can seek redress—a message that environmentalists have made repeatedly. Of course, they have exacted payback in other ways like typhoid. I wonder whether we forget or don’t really know how firms have harmed without capturing a sense of how these very firms have depended on creatures surrounding them.