Union Street was laid out in 1636, but there are no municipal records documenting the Oyster House’s date of construction. All that is known is that the building has stood on Union Street as a major local landmark for more than 250 years.
In 1742—before it became a seafood house, the building housed importer Hopestill Capen’s fancy dress goods business, known colorfully as “At the Sign of the Cornfields.” At this time, the Boston waterfront came up to the back door of the dry goods establishment, making it convenient for ships to deliver their cloth and goods from Europe.
Oysters were first served to the public in this country in 1763 when a primitive saloon was opened in New York City in a Broad Street cellar.
The first stirrings of the American Revolution reached the upper floor of the building in 1771, when printer Isaiah Thomas published his newspaper “The Massachusetts Spy,” long known as the oldest newspaper in the United States.
In 1775, Capen’s silk and dry goods store became headquarters for Ebenezer Hancock, the first paymaster of the Continental Army. There is no reason to doubt that Washington himself was familiar with its surroundings. At the very spot where diners today enjoy their favorite New England specialties, Federal troops received their “war wages” in the official pay-station.
During the revolution the Adams, Hancock, and Quincy wives, as well as their neighbors, often sat in their stalls of the Capen House sewing and mending clothes for the colonists.
In 1796, a future king of France lived on the second floor. Exiled from his country, he earned his living by teaching French to many of Boston’s fashionable young ladies. Later Louis Phillippe returned home to serve as King from 1830 to 1848.
In the 19th century, the American people were enveloped in an oyster craze. In every town there were oyster parlors, oyster cellars, oyster saloons, oyster bars, oyster houses, oyster stalls and oyster lunchrooms.
1826 marked the end of Capen’s Dry Goods Store and the beginning of Atwood and Bacon’s establishment. The new owners installed the fabled semi-circular Oyster Bar — where the greats of Boston paused for refreshment. (Click here to see an original menu from the Atwood and Bacon Oyster House.)
It was at the Oyster Bar that Daniel Webster, a constant customer, daily drank his tall tumbler of brandy and water with each half-dozen oysters, seldom having less than six plates.
The toothpick was first used in the United States at the Union Oyster House. Enterprising Charles Forster of Maine first imported the picks from South America. To promote his new business he hired Harvard boys to dine at the Union Oyster House and ask for toothpicks.
A college president was salad man here. Jack Coleman, President of Pennsylvania’s Haverford College worked in total anonymity for a few months during his sabbatical when he secretly sampled some of America’s rigorous jobs and lifestyles.
The Kennedy Clan has patronized the Union Oyster House for years. J.F.K. loved to feast in privacy in the upstairs dining room. His favorite booth “The Kennedy Booth” has since been dedicated in his memory.
Since 1826, the Union Oyster House has known only three owners. Carrying on proud traditions in dining and service since 1970 have been Mr. Joseph A. Milano, Jr., and Ms. Mary Ann Milano Picardi.