Wall Street History
And now for something completely different. Since it relates to
prices and inflation, I feel it qualifies as a topic under the broad
scope of “Wall Street History.”
This past Oct. 24-27, a convention of ocean historians was held
in Denmark; part of a 10-year project to map the oceans’ species
in order to get a better handle on managing future stocks.
One of the specific areas being looked at is the history of seafood
prices since the 1850s, thanks to some 200,000 restaurant menus
that have been collected primarily from universities and libraries.
Not all of them have prices, but they represent more than enough
data from which to draw conclusions, with most of the figures
coming from the New York, Boston and San Francisco areas.
By plotting the prices on an inflation-adjusted basis, the
researchers, led by Dr. Glenn Jones of Texas A&M, can begin to
make recommendations on better management of the various
Most of the information was collected on the tastes and supplies
of lobster, abalone, oysters, halibut, haddock, sole, and
Take lobster, for example. Dr. Jones relates how it fetched little
more than a couple of dollars a lb. in the 1850s.
“Prior to the 1880s, it was unusual to see lobster on menus at all
except in bargain-priced lobster salad. It was considered a trash
fish – it was not something you’d want to be seen eating. In
Colonial America servants negotiated agreements that they
would not be forced to eat lobster more than twice a week.”
Lobster was often used as a substitute for manure in the old days.
But Americans developed a taste for it and lobster’s popularity
ballooned from the 1950s as stocks became scarce with over-
fishing. By the 1970s, lobster had peaked at $30 a pound and
since has fallen to about $25 (2004); though production costs are
lower and new lobster beds are being exploited.
“It’s interesting on menus today to see the appearance of four
and five pound lobsters,” says Jones. “There is little chance
those are coming from the inshore fisheries, which are so heavily
fished a lobster is sent to market as soon as it’s up to weight.
What it indicates to me is the opening up of new deep areas on
the outer continental shelf, 200 miles offshore.”
Then there is the case of the slow-growing mollusk, the abalone.
San Francisco menus began featuring it in the 1920s and the
price held steady at about $7 for a meal. But following a spike in
the 1950s, the price has risen 7 to 10 times faster than inflation
and is now $50 to $70 a plate. And that’s not even California
abalone since the state banned commercial fishing of it in 1997,
so what you’re getting is probably from New Zealand or
As for oysters, the price remained flat for about 100 years, then
climbed at twice the inflation rate starting in the 1950s as beds
became over-exploited. There were similar trends with
swordfish and sole, though prices have been coming down lately
because of better controls on the catch.
“As supplies dropped and prices rose, some of these species
became a status symbol,” said Dr. Jones. “It seems to confirm
that many people simply want to eat something that is rare.”
Here’s a further take from the official report:
“The price of a wild canvasback duck meal rose from today’s
equivalent of $20 in the 1860s to $100 in 1910 as stocks
collapsed. Professional hunters harvested up to 1,000 per day to
supply restaurants, fostering the federal government’s decision to
outlaw the commercial slaughter of migratory birds in 1913.”
Danish environmental historian Poul Holm, who heads the
History of Marine Animal Populations, discusses trends from
“The Romans ate fish in vast quantities. And over-fishing in
medieval Europe was a very real problem in the days of William
the Conqueror and Leonardo da Vinci.”
Imperial Rome developed a fish processing industry by smoking,
drying, salting and using oil and different sauces to preserve fish.
Their techniques spread outside the Empire and into the Northern
Black Sea region, where large salting operations in the Crimea
became a flourishing industry. A fish soup produced in huge
open-air boileries was consumed in such large quantities by the
Romans that they significantly reduced fish stocks in the
Meanwhile, archaeologists are documenting the diminishing size
of North Sea fish between years 1000 and 1500, a sure sign of
over-fishing, but such pressure was temporary. Even the most
exploited species, such as cod and herring, have demonstrated
the ability to recover over time, offering lessons for today in
examining the fishing grounds off Maine and Newfoundland, for
A conclusion of the report:
“This history of marine animal populations is a blind spot in
human knowledge being filled by the combined efforts of
historians, paleo-ecologists, and ecosystem modelers. Helping
visualize the past, now almost unimaginable richness of the
oceans could inspire and influence the way marine resources are
managed in the future.”
Census of Marine Life [coml.org]
Times of London
Wall Street History will return in two weeks.