NYPL Exhibitions

Thomas Downing and Oysters

Thomas Downing (1791–1866), a free black raised in Chincoteague, Virginia, ran the most famous, and very likely the best, oyster cellar in New York. He shipped oysters to Paris and London—Queen Victoria was so pleased with hers that she sent him a gold chronometer watch. When Charles Dickens visited New York in 1842, it was Downing who catered the “Boz Ball,” the great novelist’s official welcome to the city. Even in an oyster-mad city like New York, few of the oystermen knew their trade as well as Downing, who had been raking oysters since he was a child. He opened his restaurant in 1825; ten years later it was so popular that he expanded into two neighboring buildings. Offering raw oysters, fried oysters, oyster stews, and even a poached turkey stuffed with oysters, Downing’s menu made him a wealthy man. He was widely known for his philanthropy and for his activism in the abolitionist movement.