Whoever First Ate an Oyster Was a Brave Soul

Jonathan Swift? Benjamin Franklin? Shirley Chisholm? Thomas Moffett? John Ward? King James I of England? Thomas Fuller? John Gay? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During a commencement address I heard the following vivid advice offered to students:

Be as Bold as the First Man or Woman To Eat an Oyster.

Apparently, the famous Irish literary figure Jonathan Swift and the prominent U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin both praised the courage of the gustatorial explorer who originally sampled the oyster. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Several prominent historical figures penned versions of this sentiment. Thomas Moffett was an influential English physician who died in 1604. He authored a book titled “Healths improvement: or, Rules comprizing and discovering the nature, method, and manner of preparing all sorts of food used in this nation” which appeared in an edition dated 1655. Moffett commented on the boldness of first person who ate an oyster. Spelling was not standardized when his book was published. The word “oysters” was printed as “oisters”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . onely Oisters of all fish are good raw (yet he was no Coward that first ventered on them) . . .

The diary of the Reverend John Ward included a comment about oysters. Ward was vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon in England, and the diary entry containing the following was written circa 1661. Ward credited King James I of England who had died in 1625: 2

King James said hee was a valiant man that durst first eat oysters.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The 1662 edition of “The history of the worthies of England” by Thomas Fuller also attributed the saying to King James: 3

King James was wont to say, he was a very valiant man, who first adventured on eating of Oysters; most probably meer hunger put men first on that tryal.

In 1716 a verse about oysters by English poet John Gay appeared in “Trivia: or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London”: 4

The Man had sure a Palate cover’d o’er
With Brass or Steel, that on the rocky Shore
First broke the oozy Oyster’s pearly Coat,
And risqu’d the living Morsel down his Throat.
What will not Lux’ry taste? Earth, Sea, and Air
Are daily ransack’d for the Bill of Fare.

In 1738 Jonathan Swift, published “A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation” which included the following exchange between the characters Lady Smart and Colonel Atwit: 5

Lady Smart. Ladies and Gentlemen, will you eat any Oysters before Dinner?

Col. With all my Heart. [Takes an Oyster.] He was a bold Man, that first eat an Oyster.

Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” for 1751 included a slightly altered version of John Gay’s verse: 6

But he had sure a Palate cover’d o’er
With Brass or Steel, that on the rocky Shore,
First broke the oozy Oister’s pearly Coat,
And risk’d the living Morsel down his Throat.

The collection “Here We Stand: 600 Inspiring Messages from the World’s Best Commencement Addresses” included a remark referring to oysters made by Shirley Chisholm who served in the U.S. Congress for seven terms: 7

Be as bold as the first man or woman to eat an oyster.
— Shirley Chisholm, politician, at Mount Holyoke College (1981)

In conclusion, the bravery of the first oyster eater has been acknowledged for at least four hundred years. The earliest published evidence was written by Thomas Moffett, but a variety of figures made similar remarks over the years. John Gay, Jonathan Swift, and Benjamin Franklin helped to popularize this anonymous proverbial wisdom.

Image Notes. Painting “Still life with oysters” from Paul Gauguin circa 1876; accessed via WikiArt.

(Thanks to Burton Stevenson for his pioneering research on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1655, Title: Healths improvement: or, Rules comprizing and discovering the nature, method, and manner of preparing all sorts of food used in this nation. Written by that ever famous Thomas Muffett, Doctor in Physick: corrected and enlarged by Christopher Bennet, Doctor in Physick, and fellow of the Colledg of Physitians in London, Author: Thomas Moffett (1553-1604), Quote Page 47, Publication: London, : Printed by Tho: Newcomb for Samuel Thomson, London. (EEBO Early English Books Online)
  2. 1839, Diary of the Rev. John Ward A.M., Vicar of Stratford-Upon-Avon, Extending from 1648 to 1679, From the Original Mss. Preserved in the Library of the Medical Society of London, Arranged by Charles Severn, M.D. (Member of the Royal College of Physicians in London), Date specified on page 109: March 1, 1661, Quote Page 111, Published by Henry Colburn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1662, Title: The history of the worthies of England who for parts and learning have been eminent in the several counties : together with an historical narrative of the native commodities and rarities in each county, Author: Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), Section: Oysters, Publication: Printed by J.G.W.L. and W.G. for Thomas Williams, London. (EEBO Early English Books Online)
  4. 1716, Trivia: or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London by Mr. Gay (John Gay), Quote Page 66, Printed for Bernard Lintott at the Cross-Keys, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1738, A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation by Jonathan Swift, Section: Polite Conversation: Dialogue II, Start Page 115, Quote Page 120, Printed for B. Motte and C. Bathurst, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1751, Poor Richard Improved: Being an Almanack and Ephemeris of the Motions of the Sun and Moon, For the Year of Our Lord 1751, Benjamin Franklin, Month: June, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Images from Rosenbach Museum & Library; accessed at rarebookroom.org on January 1, 2020) link
  7. 2009, Here We Stand: 600 Inspiring Messages from the World’s Best Commencement Addresses, Edited by Randy Howe, Chapter: Congratulations, Now Go Get ’em!, Speaker: Shirley Chisholm, politician, Year: 1981, Location: Mount Holyoke College, Quote Page 13, The Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut. (Verified with hard copy)