Three different kinds of crabmeat- good, better, and best. “Graded” crab meat (a brilliant marketing scheme) was developed by the Coulbourne and Jewett packing house around 1910, and their backfin, special, regular, claw and lump classifications became a signature feature of the enterprise. Located on the industrial waterfront area of Navy Point in St Michaels, Maryland, (today the grounds of the current-day Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum) Coulbourne and Jewett was one of the only African-American owned packing houses in the state- a remarkable accomplishment in the era of Jim Crow. Their savvy crab meat differentiation system would become almost universal in the industry- proof that all a salesman needs is a good product and the gift of spin.
Crab Fisherman, Rock Point Maryland, Crab Sign, and Fishing For Crabs at Colonial Beach by Arthur Rothstein, 1919-1926. Collections of the Library of Congress.
With the crab population so precipitously low in the Chesapeake this year, some groups are calling for a moratorium on the crabbing harvest. Crabs are still an icon of the Chesapeake, and play a central role in our summer picnics and seafood industry, but the low harvests are driving prices up and raising concerns about the long-term future of the crabbing industry.
That said, it’s always nice to remember the good old days, when crabs were fat, plentiful, and cheap. These images from the 1930’s reflect a Bay that was still a vital resource- providing hundred of thousands of bushels of the prized delicacies, to be steamed in vinegar scented water and piled high with clouds of Old Bay.
A heavily clouded sky hangs above loblollies and the silver water of the Assateague Channel. This shallow, tidal salt marsh tucked between Chincoteague Island and the long tail of Assateague Island is the location of the annual Pony Swim made famous in Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague. Barrier islands like Chincoteague, along the ocean side of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, are rich environmental landscapes, constantly changing because of shifting sediments, wave action, and erosion.
Scenes from Small Craft Festival- the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s annual fall celebration of messing about in boats. Small wooden sailing and rowing vessels are convened for a weekend in October by their passionate, dedicated owners- many of whom built the boats themselves.
Anyone, with the owner’s blessing, can jump aboard and take out different small craft, to see how they sail or navigate. St Michaels’ harbor, dominated in the summertime by massive yachts and large sailboats, is now full of small dinghies and skiffs that tack in the slow breeze with excited passengers calling back and forth. Fish school in the shallows and navigate around buoys marking makeshift moorings that have proliferated for the weekend’s events.
The parking lot turns into a campsite, as Small Craft participants take the party off the water in the evenings and swap stories and techniques and tall tales around a fire festooned with dogs and burgers.
It’s good old-fashioned Chesapeake fun- the kind people can still have, with a tenacious little skiff, a stiff breeze, and a full sail.