Jim Banagan cast to say that if he had any faculty back he was in school, he’d be a millionaire. By sense, he agency the anticipation to accumulate ability cans afore they became bright charcoal of a already advancing culture. During the 1940s and ’50s, ability cans emblazoned with the brittle cartoon of hundreds of bounded packinghouses were as accepted as acrylic cans, and usually anguish up in the aforementioned place—the trash. Today, they can back hundreds and sometimes alike bags of dollars.
photo: Dave Cooper
Thin and tan, with snow-white beard and bristling eyebrows, Banagan, who was built-in in 1931, grew up in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, a feel of acreage bulging into the Chesapeake Bay amid the Potomac and Patuxent rivers. Generations of his ancestors plied the area’s flat coves in deadrise workboats, tonging for oysters in abatement and winter, baiting backtalk trotlines in summer, fishing, clamming, and communicable turtles. On abounding an aboriginal morning, the adolescent Banagan burst into an oilcloth slicker to assignment on his father’s boat. “It was adamantine assignment for not abundant money,” he says. During the Depression, “my ancestors almost survived.”
After aerial school, Banagan approved his duke at the ability barter for a time, afore eventually chief to accompany the Coast Guard and activity on to accessible his own bartering charwoman business. But he’s consistently backward aing to the water. Now retired, he lives in a bashful brick home perched aloft St. Clements Bay, watching ospreys nesting aloft his boathouse. And for decades, he’s been accession what is now one of the better collections of ability cans in the country. He owns about three thousand of them, from the Chesapeake and beyond.
Though Banagan is a beneficiary by nature—his shelves are awash with Indian arrowheads, jars of marbles, best toys, and metal signs—he didn’t activate accession ability cans until the 1980s. His aggregation was charwoman out a barn back a shelf of cans bent 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 acclimated to assignment oysters.” But article fabricated Banagan set these a during his canton dump run. The Capt. Sam’s can that started it all? It’s now account about $2,000.
He begin added while authoritative approved circuit of aged shops and country bargain houses. Sometimes he’d blunder on best cans abounding with brads and washers in arenaceous workshops. As he met added collectors and began to buy and trade, his arrangement continued from North Carolina to New Jersey. Pennsylvania, abnormally enough, accepted fruitful. “The Amish like oysters,” Banagan says. “When they dead pigs, they’d abundance the drip in old cans. Some of my cans accept drip residue.”
The cans themselves acquaint an American story. Until the nineteenth century, oysters were a littoral delicacy, but railroads and canning, a food-preservation advance fabricated in France in 1809, afflicted all that. Baltimore, or Ability City, as it was known, became America’s canning capital. By 1870, the Inner Harbor was a cannery row active in carapace mounds. Millions of oysters were shucked, steamed, and hermetically closed in gallon cans. Crated and ample on trains, they accustomed canicule after in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Kansas City, and added civil cities. Packing plants sprang up throughout Maryland—more than eighty in St. Mary’s Canton alone—Virginia, and anywhere abroad oysters were plentiful, including the Carolinas, Georgia, and all forth the Gulf Coast. But overharvesting, pollution, and ache took their assessment on the industry. From a aiguille of fifteen actor bushels in 1885, Chesapeake Bay ability harvests began a abiding decline, extensive a low of beneath than 100,000 bushels by the mid-1990s.
The oldest American ability cans were bulky and rectangular, anchored calm from tinplate. Banagan owns a few dozen of these from the Civil War era. Despite their age and rarity, however, these apparent containers are not as admired as the annular cans that replaced them alpha in the backward nineteenth century, back packers started emblazoning their cans with adorable labels proclaiming “finest quality” and “pearl of the sea,” a way to analyze themselves in a awash field. Collectors abnormally tend to favor the high-resolution blush lithography printed anon assimilate metal cans starting in the 1920s.
photo: Dave Cooper
During his aboriginal accession days, Banagan was affairs a lot of cans from a North Carolina dealer. After a day of haggling, Banagan paid $35,000 for the man’s absolute collection, about nine hundred cans. “Everybody anticipation I was crazy,” he says. But the accumulating independent some gems, including a attenuate and admirable pre–World War II Wild Duck cast gallon can. There are alone two accepted to abide (the added is in the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland).
Banagan still buys (and sells the casual duplicate), mostly through eBay and added websites. He owns cans from adopted countries, including a dozen from New Zealand. From the complete of it, there aren’t abounding accepted ability cans he doesn’t own. And back he’s finished? No worries, he says. “I’m into clams now.”
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