Jim Banagan likes to say that if he had any sense when he was in school, he’d be a millionaire. By sense, he means the foresight to gather oyster cans before they became colorful relics of a once thriving culture. During the 1940s and ’50s, oyster cans emblazoned with the crisp graphics of hundreds of local packinghouses were as common as paint cans, and usually wound up in the same place—the trash. Today, they can fetch hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars.
Thin and tan, with snow-white hair and bushy eyebrows, Banagan, who was born in 1931, grew up in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, a finger of land jutting into the Chesapeake Bay between the Potomac and Patuxent rivers. Generations of his family plied the area’s tidal coves in deadrise workboats, tonging for oysters in fall and winter, baiting crab trotlines in summer, fishing, clamming, and catching turtles. On many an early morning, the young Banagan shivered into an oilcloth slicker to work on his father’s boat. “It was hard work for not much money,” he says. During the Depression, “my family barely survived.”
After high school, Banagan tried his hand at the oyster trade for a time, before eventually deciding to join the Coast Guard and going on to open his own commercial cleaning business. But he’s always stayed close to the water. Now retired, he lives in a modest brick home perched above St. Clements Bay, watching ospreys nesting atop his boathouse. And for decades, he’s been amassing what is now one of the largest collections of oyster cans in the country. He owns around three thousand of them, from the Chesapeake and beyond.
Though Banagan is a collector by nature—his shelves are crammed with Indian arrowheads, jars of marbles, vintage toys, and metal signs—he didn’t begin collecting oyster cans until the 1980s. His company was cleaning out a garage when a shelf of cans caught his eye—“Capt. Sam’s Fresh Oysters” out of Bushwood, Maryland; “J. C. Lore & Sons, Planters & Packers,” from Solomons Island. As he says, “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry used to work oysters.” But something made Banagan set these aside during his county dump run. The Capt. Sam’s can that started it all? It’s now worth about $2,000.
He found more while making regular rounds of antique shops and country auction houses. Sometimes he’d stumble on vintage cans filled with brads and washers in dusty workshops. As he met other collectors and began to buy and trade, his network stretched from North Carolina to New Jersey. Pennsylvania, strangely enough, proved fruitful. “The Amish like oysters,” Banagan says. “When they killed pigs, they’d store the lard in old cans. Some of my cans have lard residue.”
The cans themselves tell an American story. Until the nineteenth century, oysters were a coastal delicacy, but railroads and canning, a food-preservation breakthrough made in France in 1809, changed all that. Baltimore, or Oyster City, as it was known, became America’s canning capital. By 1870, the Inner Harbor was a cannery row buried in shell mounds. Millions of oysters were shucked, steamed, and hermetically sealed in gallon cans. Crated and stacked on trains, they arrived days later in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Kansas City, and other inland cities. Packing plants sprang up throughout Maryland—more than eighty in St. Mary’s County alone—Virginia, and anywhere else oysters were plentiful, including the Carolinas, Georgia, and all along the Gulf Coast. But overharvesting, pollution, and disease took their toll on the industry. From a peak of fifteen million bushels in 1885, Chesapeake Bay oyster harvests began a steady decline, reaching a low of fewer than 100,000 bushels by the mid-1990s.
The oldest American oyster cans were clunky and rectangular, soldered together from tinplate. Banagan owns a few dozen of these from the Civil War era. Despite their age and rarity, however, these plain containers are not as prized as the cylindrical cans that replaced them beginning in the late nineteenth century, when packers started emblazoning their cans with enticing labels proclaiming “finest quality” and “pearl of the sea,” a way to distinguish themselves in a crowded field. Collectors especially tend to favor the high-resolution color lithography printed directly onto metal cans starting in the 1920s.
During his early collecting days, Banagan was buying a lot of cans from a North Carolina dealer. After a day of haggling, Banagan paid $35,000 for the man’s entire collection, around nine hundred cans. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” he says. But the collection contained some gems, including a rare and beautiful pre–World War II Wild Duck brand gallon can. There are only two known to exist (the other is in the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland).
Banagan still buys (and sells the occasional duplicate), mostly through eBay and other websites. He owns cans from foreign countries, including a dozen from New Zealand. From the sound of it, there aren’t many known oyster cans he doesn’t own. And when he’s finished? No worries, he says. “I’m into clams now.”