The Belle Époque
The Worlds Fair of 1889 in Paris was exemplary of the Belle Époque. Thirty million visitors got a glimpse of what the future would likely bring. It was a grand event. The fairgrounds were electrically lit up until midnight for the first time. The setting must have seemed surreal to most visitors. Amazed crowds would delight in viewing countless fascinating displays of entertainment, science and technology. An engineer by the name of Gustave Eiffel had managed to have 7 million holes drilled into 15,000 steel plates. He then had them all screwed, bolted and welded together. The resulting 7,000 ton steel tower, famous today all over the world as the Eiffel Tower, seemed to practically touch the sky above. Like a huge, ominous index finger pointing 984 feet up into the air, it boldly prophesized the future: "The sky's the limit!".
The Belle Époque was a fantastic time period. Optimism, excitement, free thinking, ingenuity and invention, and the promise of a better life with more prosperity abounded. It was simply a celebration of mankind. All the best bits and pieces of mankind's past trials and tribulations seemed to have finally come together. The arts, literature, sciences, and technology all blossomed beautifully. Even a guy by the name of Charles Darwin, who,in 1859, dared to challenge the biblical story of creation with a new evolutionary theory, became mandatory reading for many - at a time, when Darwin had already long left the public circuit and chosen a life of semi-reclusivity. One new invention was chased by the next and industry was flourishing unbridled in Europe and America. In 1816, the United States had issued a mere 3,000 patents. By 1896, the height of the Belle Époque, this figure had risen to 56,000.
The spirit of invention was also alive and well in the American oyster industry. Pictured we see a '"new and improved" oyster dredge, patented by Wm. L. Force in 1860. The dredge had a sled design. A steel bar with strong teeth, reminiscent of a massive garden rake, scooped up the oysters and fed them into a steel link bag located behind it. While the French were already forging towards the perfection of oyster cultivation, the Americans were perfecting oyster exploitation. By 1920, huge American oyster steamers with crews of 25 men were dragging many of these dredges simultaneously. A typical oyster steamer of this size could harvest 8,000 bushels of oysters per day.
Although poverty was still wide spread, a large and most affluent business class evolved alongside the nobles, which rejoiced in spending lots money on "the finer things in life". Oysters were, of course, a big part of these "finer things", as was Champagne. Champagne, the "King of Wines", and the oyster, the "Queen of the Sea", were celebrated as a match made in heaven. Many discreet little establishments called "Séparées" started popping up in and around Paris, which served oysters and Champagne for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Champagne houses were making money hand over fist during these decades. Oysters were being consumed at record levels. Ornate three-pronged oyster forks and finely crafted oyster plates and platters with beautiful hand-painted motifs became fashionable components of tableware sets. Sterling silver oyster forks and French porcelain oyster platters of the Belle Époque and the first half of the 20th century, are highly prized collectibles today.
This French post card series from the Belle Époque is most interesting and amusing (post cards can be clicked for enlargement):
Health advisory: There is a risk associated with consuming raw oysters or any raw animal protein. If you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood or have immune disorders, you are at greatest risk of illness from raw oysters and should eat oysters fully cooked. If you are unsure of your risk, you should consult your physician.
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