The lobster, a crustacean that inhabits the coastal waters of North America, has a rich history and has undergone significant changes in its socioeconomic significance over time. From being a staple food for Native Americans to becoming a luxury delicacy in American culture, the status of lobster has evolved significantly. However, this transformation has not been without its complexities and controversies. In this paper, we will explore the socioeconomic impact of lobsters, examining their history, cultural significance, and economic implications.
The history of lobster dates back to Native American tribes who relied on it as a food source for centuries. Native Americans used lobsters for sustenance and incorporated them into their diets as a readily available seafood resource (History.com Staff). However, the perception of lobster underwent a significant shift with the arrival of European colonists in North America.
In 1876, the first commercial lobster fishery was established in Maine, marking the beginning of an industry that would eventually become a significant economic force in the region (History.com Staff). Over time, lobster harvests grew, and lobsters were increasingly seen as a cheap source of food, commonly consumed by the working class and prisoners (Miller). The abundance of lobsters and their low market value led to the widespread use of lobsters as fertilizer, bait, and even food for livestock.
However, in recent decades, the perception of lobsters has changed dramatically. Today, lobsters are regarded as a luxury food item, synonymous with fine dining and special occasions. Lobster has become an iconic symbol of indulgence and extravagance, with high prices commanding a premium in the culinary world.
Lobster today is seen as a delicacy in American culture, although this has not always been the case; Lobster has been one of the most socio-economically manipulated dishes ever seen. In the following pages, we will delve into the history of lobsters, examining their cultural significance among lobsters and eastern communities, the ecosystem that it is produced, and the socioeconomic implications of the transformation of lobsters from a cheap food source to a luxury delicacy. By examining the socioeconomic aspects of lobsters, we can gain a deeper understanding of how food and culture intersect and the broader implications of cultural attitudes towards food and its value.
The lobster’s ecosystem is a complex and dynamic web of interactions involving various species, environmental factors, and human activities. Lobsters are typically found in rocky coastal areas, where they seek shelter in crevices and burrows. They are opportunistic scavengers that feed on a wide variety of prey, including small fish, crabs, clams, and other marine organisms (Heather D. Bracken-Grissom et. al.). Lobsters play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems by regulating the populations of their prey and serving as a food source for other marine animals.
Despite the popular perception of lobster as a common and abundant seafood, the lobster population has faced challenges in recent years. “The lobster industry has long been vital to many coastal communities, providing economic benefits and cultural significance. However, in recent years, changes in the lobster ecosystem, driven by factors such as climate change and fishing regulations, have posed challenges for the industry,” (Trundy). In particular, areas with intensive lobster fishing activities, such as Stonington, Maine, have experienced declines in population due to overexploitation. These challenges highlight the vulnerability of lobster populations to human activities and environmental changes, underscoring the need for sustainable management practices to ensure their long-term survival.
To cope with the changing lobster ecosystem, lobster fishermen have turned to new technology to improve their fishing strategies. As mentioned in the interview response, better weather tracking technology and mapping of the lobster population have been utilized to predict when and where lobsters will be available (Trundy). For example, some fishermen have started using traps with larger openings during the early part of the season when the population is more concentrated (Miller). These technological advancements have helped lobster fishermen to adapt to the changing conditions and continue their livelihoods despite the challenges posed by the changing lobster ecosystem.
The smaller population of lobsters in traditional fishing areas has also been impacted by fishing regulations aimed at protecting breeding populations (Trundy). These regulations, such as size restrictions, have been effective in maintaining a healthy lobster population, but they have also made it more challenging for fishermen to make a living. For example, proposed changes to the size regulations could further impact the industry, potentially reducing the number of lobsters that can be legally caught and sold, according to a report by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (Maine Lobstermen’s Association). Balancing the need for conservation with the socioeconomic interests of the industry remains a challenge for policymakers and stakeholders in the lobster industry.
Lobster has been traditionally used for a variety of purposes beyond human consumption. For example, Native American tribes along the eastern seaboard of North America used lobster as bait for fishing and traded it with European colonists (Herlihy). Lobster shells were also used as a source of calcium for agricultural purposes, and lobster was used as fertilizer in some regions (Herlihy). In addition, lobster shells were used to make buttons, jewelry, and other crafts (Herlihy). These historical uses of lobster highlight the multifaceted role of this crustacean in human societies and the diverse ways in which it has been utilized beyond its culinary value.
Lobster has a rich cultural history and has been used in various ways by different societies throughout human history. Native American tribes along the eastern coast of North America considered lobster as an important food source and incorporated it into their diets (Herilhy). Lobster was also used in Native American rituals and ceremonies, symbolizing abundance and prosperity.
However, lobster did not always enjoy the same level of popularity in American culture as it does today. In the early colonial period, lobster was often seen as a low-status food, associated with poverty and even used as a food source for prisoners and indentured servants (Miller). In fact, during the colonial period in America, some indentured servants even included a clause in their contracts that limited the number of times they could be fed lobster in a week (Miller). It was not until the mid-19th century that lobster began to gain popularity as a luxury food item in the United States (Briones-Fourzán). However, with advancements in transportation and preservation technologies, along with changes in cultural perceptions, lobster gradually gained popularity as a luxury food item. In the late 19th century, improvements in canning and transportation made it easier to transport lobster to urban markets, and it began to be featured in high-end restaurants (Dembosky)
The cultural perception of lobster shifted in the late 19th century when improvements in transportation and canning technology made it easier to transport and preserve lobster, increasing its availability in urban markets (Miller). Lobster became a delicacy associated with special occasions, fine dining, and luxury, and its price and status rose accordingly (Miller). It is also used in various culinary dishes, from classic lobster rolls to gourmet lobster dishes in upscale restaurants. The cultural significance of lobster in American society highlights the socio-economic manipulation of this once humble food item, as it has transformed from a low-status food to a symbol of luxury and indulgence.
An interesting aspect of the cultural history of lobster is the role it played in the power struggle over women in some indigenous communities. Among the indigenous tribes of the Eastern coast of North America, there are accounts of male lobster divers who formed colonies and engaged in the dangerous practice of diving for lobsters in order to obtain valuable lobsters to trade for wives (Herlihy). These male divers would risk their lives diving into the cold waters, facing the dangers of the deep sea, and navigating treacherous underwater terrain to collect lobsters as a means of acquiring wealth and social status in their communities (Herlihy).
In some indigenous societies, lobsters were seen as a form of currency, and the ability to catch and trade lobsters was linked to social and economic power (Herlihy). The more lobsters a man could catch and trade, the more wives he could afford to marry, and the higher his status would be in the community (Herlihy). This created a power dynamic where the ownership and control of lobsters became intertwined with the power struggle over women and marriage arrangements in these societies.
This practice of using lobsters as a tool in the power struggle over women highlights the complex interplay between culture, gender, and economics in the context of lobster fishing. It sheds light on how the cultural perception and use of lobster can be shaped by social and economic factors and how it can be influenced by power dynamics within a society.
Today, lobster is considered a delicacy and is often associated with special occasions, celebrations, and fine dining experiences. It is featured in gourmet dishes in upscale restaurants, and its high market value reflects its status as a luxury food item. The cultural perception of lobster has shifted from a food of the poor to a symbol of opulence and indulgence in modern American cuisine.
The transformation of lobster from a “poor man’s protein” and a use of power over indigenous people to a high-class food item highlights the socio-economic manipulation that has shaped its perception in culinary culture. It reflects how cultural perceptions of food can change over time and how socio-economic factors can influence the value and status of food items in a society.
World War II had a significant impact on the consumption and reputation of lobster in American society. During the war, rationing and food shortages led to a decline in lobster consumption, as it was not considered a priority food item for the war effort (Dembosky). Lobster, which was once associated with luxury and indulgence, became less accessible to the general public during this period. The decline in lobster consumption during World War II had a lasting impact on its reputation. After the war, lobster struggled to regain its previous status as a luxury food item due to the changed economic and social landscape. However, the post-war economic boom and changing cultural norms eventually led to a resurgence in lobster consumption, especially among the middle and upper classes (Briones-Fourzán).
This change in perception can be seen in literature and popular culture, including in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel “The Great Gatsby.” In the novel, lobster is portrayed as a sign of wealth and extravagance. The character of Jay Gatsby, known for his wealthy lifestyle and grand parties, serves lobster to his guests as a symbol of his wealth and social status (Fitzgerald). This portrayal reflects the changing cultural perception of lobster as a luxury food item in the post-war era.
The impact of World War II on lobster consumption and reputation highlights the ways in which historical events can shape the cultural significance and perception of food items. It illustrates how socio-economic factors, such as rationing and changing cultural norms, can influence the consumption and portrayal of food in literature and popular culture.
The history of lobster and its status today provides a rich anthropological perspective on the cultural significance of food. Lobster has been one of the most socio-economically manipulated dishes throughout history, with its perception changing from a food source for Native Americans, to a tool in power struggles over women, to a delicacy in American culture.
The ecosystem of lobsters, characterized by smaller populations and a variety of uses, has played a crucial role in shaping their cultural history and use. From being a staple food source for indigenous male lobster divers to being fed to inmates as a “poor man’s protein,” lobster has had a complex relationship with human societies, reflecting the socio-economic dynamics of different time periods.
However, in recent years, the lobster population has faced challenges due to climate change and overfishing. Rising ocean temperatures and changing marine ecosystems have led to a decline in lobster populations in certain areas, posing threats to their sustainability. This raises concerns about the future of lobster as a cultural symbol and food source and the need for sustainable fishing practices and conservation efforts.
Furthermore, the cultural perception of lobster as a high-class food item, as portrayed in literature and popular culture, has evolved over time, shaped by historical events and changing socio-economic factors. The impact of World War II on lobster consumption and reputation, as well as its portrayal in “The Great Gatsby,” highlights the dynamic nature of food culture and how it is influenced by broader societal changes.
In conclusion, the history and power dynamics surrounding lobster dishes throughout history provide valuable insights into the anthropological perspective on food culture. The challenges faced by the dwindling lobster population due to climate change and overfishing further emphasize the need for sustainable practices to ensure the continued availability of this iconic seafood delicacy in American culture and beyond.
Fitzgerald, F. S. The Great Gatsby. Scribner, 1925.
Miller, Maia. “Claws of Catharsis: The Food Narrative of Lobster Eating.” View of Claws of Catharsis, https://yourreview.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/yourreview/article/view/40307/36490.
Bracken-Grissom, Heather D., et al. “The Emergence of Lobsters: Phylogenetic Relationships, Morphological Evolution and Divergence Time Comparisons of an Ancient Group (Decapoda: Achelata, Astacidea, Glypheidea, Polychelida).” Systematic Biology, vol. 63, no. 4, 2014, pp. 457-479, https://doi.org/10.1093/sysbio/syu008.
Briones-Fourzán, Patricia, and Enrique Lozano-Álvarez. “Lobsters: Ocean Icons in Changing Times.” ICES Journal of Marine Science, vol. 72, no. suppl_1, 2015, pp. i1-i6, https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsv111.
Herlihy, Laura Hobson. “Indigenous Masculinities in the Global Lobster Economy.” Southern Anthropologist, vol. 31, no. 1, 2005, Article 4, https://egrove.olemiss.edu/southern_anthropologist/vol31/iss1/4.
Dembosky, April. “How the Lobster Clawed Its Way Up.” Mother Jones, 1 Mar. 2006, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2006/03/how-lobster-clawed-its-way/.
Trundy, Ronald. Personal interview. April 2023.
Maine Lobstermen’s Association, https://mloa.memberclicks.net/industry-information-blog.
“A Taste of Lobster History.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, https://www.history.com/news/a-taste-of-lobster-history.