Slow Business at the “Fruit and Oyster House”

Some of the best images of the American Civil War can be found in the long campaign around the city of Petersburg. Teams of photographers swooped over the battlefield to document the story, capturing impressive shots of the massive fortifications and staggering casualties. Even the duller moments of the siege produced candid whimsical moments, as when Timothy O’Sullivan patronized the “Fruit and Oyster House” on the Union front:

Fruit and Oyster House

I hope that more research can reveal a back story to this shack. Did someone sarcastically paint the sign out of frustration for their lack of fine cuisine in the standard army diet? Perhaps a sutler included this sign among the wares he brought down from the north in hopes of finding a sizable market? The caption for the Taylor & Huntington stereo card released a quarter of a century after speculates: “Who but a ‘Yank’ would think of starting a ‘store’ or restaurant on the line of battle where shot and shell are constantly falling? This is a bomb-proof restaurant on the line at Petersburg. The sign over the door ‘Fruit & Oyster House,’ looks as though it might have been captured by the proprietors from some regular eating house.”

Whatever his background story may be, business does not appear to be booming for the maître d’.

Fruit and Oyster House Proprietor


Update: Tip of the cap to author Mark H. Dunkelman who in the comments brings my attention to recent scholarship by The Center for Civil War Photography that suggests it might in fact be O’Sullivan in front of the camera.

Timothy O'Sullivan (National Portrait Gallery)
Timothy H. O’Sullivan (National Portrait Gallery)

3 Responses to Slow Business at the “Fruit and Oyster House”

  1. It’s probably just as well for all concerned that business wasn’t booming. I can’t imagine oysters on a siege line in the 19th century could have been very fresh.

  2. An article by Bob Zeller, “Timothy O’Sullivan in Front of the Camera,” in the current issue (Volume XII, Issue 2, August 2014) of Battlefield Photographer: The Newsletter of the Center for Civil War Photography, posits that the figure in the photograph is indeed O’Sullivan, and identifies other images in which he appears.

    1. Thank you for your response, Mark. In looking at photographs of Mr. O’Sullivan this theory certainly has weight.

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