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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 1

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 1: What to Document

What to document:


In order to provide the reader with a sense of the form and variety of traditions found in maritime communities, this section provides a few typical examples from the huge body of traditional expressions found in North American maritime communities. While this manner of presentation places traditional behavior into categories or genres, it is important to bear in mind that traditional activities do not exist in isolated, neatly defined chunks in everyday life. Traditional behavior always takes place within live cultural settings that create it and make it understandable. In other words, the categorizable item--the joke, the belief about luck, the boat--can only be fully understood within its natural context. And within such natural contexts several traditional expressions may be enacted at the same time. Consider, for example, a commercial fisherman piloting this locally built boat to fishing grounds by lining up "marks" (landmarks) while, at the same time, interpreting the circular flight patterns of sea gulls as a sign of an impending storm. In this case, traditional knowledge about boat forms suited to local conditions, navigation by eye, and prediction of weather are integrated.

Traditional knowledge can be expressed in all sorts of settings, but the ones to which folklorists and other cultural specialists devote particular attention are groupings of people based on ethnic, regional, occupational, and family ties. In maritime communities, one rich context for traditional expressions is the occupational group. Commercial fishermen, fish plant workers, boat builders, net makers, harbor pilots, and deep-sea fishing boat captains all acquire an amazing variety of traditional knowledge from co-workers which they pass along to others within the workplace.

Oyster Dredging Oyster Dredging. Photograph by William Henry Jackson, ca. 1903. From Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, detail of photo #016198.

At the core of any occupation is the technique required to perform a given task.1 This technique consists of the ways workers use their tools, respond to their environment, and interact with other workers. For example, the central technique of oyster-shucking consists of four operations: breaking off the tip of the oyster, inserting a knife blade in the shell, cutting the muscle from the top and bottom of the shell, and depositing the meat into a bucket. To outsiders this may sound like a fairly simple operation, but insiders know that skillful execution of the sequence of movements takes years of practice. Virginia Duggar of Apalachicola, Florida, an oyster shucker with over twenty years of experience, explains her basic shucking operations:

You used to use a hammer and an iron block with a tip- thing on it. And you hold the oyster behind the block with the lip of the oyster on this raised-up piece and you hit across that thin part of the oyster with the hammer. We have shucking hammers which are flat on both sides. And the main thing is to keep the point of your knife up towards the top shell. Now, you have a top and a bottom to an oyster. Ninety percent of the time the top of the oyster will be flatter, and bottom of the oyster will be rounder. So, you keep your knife, the point of your knife, and you bring it across that top shell. And then you put the top shell off, and then you come under and you cut off the bottom of the eye of the bottom shell. But if you're not particular to keep that knife kind of pushed up against the top of that top shell, then you'll cut your oyster. Your knife will go right through the belly part of it.2.

Surrounding the central technique of an occupation are many related expressive forms: words and gestures used between workers, the arrangement of tools and other objects within the work area, and customs practiced there. In the oyster house, the shuckers select oyster knives with the most appropriate blades for certain shell shapes; distinguish oysters of varying size, shape, color, and shell composition; tell stories about events that have occurred in the oyster house; gesture to the "houseman" to bring more oysters; and, perhaps, organize a party for another shucker who is about to be married.3 Examined altogether, these traditional activities help reveal how the group of shuckers expresses itself and its values.4

Frequently, certain kinds of traditional knowledge is shared only by the members of a particular occupation: the names and locations of shrimp fishing grounds are often known only by the shrimp fishermen within a specific area. Other kinds of knowledge, such as environmental clues used to predict the weather, might be known by persons in several occupations or by the community at large. A prominent example of traditional knowledge used by boat operators from different occupational groups relates to navigation. Although state-of-the-art electronic navigation devices are available to contemporary commercial fishermen and other boat operators, many who operate close to shore still calculate a straight-line course using a time-honored system based on lining up two landmarks. For example, a fisherman might plot his course to a prime fishing spot by aligning a familiar tree with the steeple of the local church. A line, or "range," such as this helps captains locate fishing spots, and also assists them in negotiating narrow, tricky passages and avoiding underwater obstructions that can damage boats and fishing gear. Sometimes skippers will record this information in notebooks; more often, they will memorize it.5 Although this basic system of navigation is well known to many boatmen, the courses themselves are usually known only by those who travel the waters of a specific region. Sometimes, as in the case of marks used to locate a rich fishing ground, courses are closely guarded secrets known only to a few. In any case, systems of navigation are worthy of researchers' attention because of their historic importance to maritime peoples, and also because they can provide insight into the ways watermen conceptualize space above and below the water.6

Let us now depart from the contexts within which traditional knowledge is expressed and look more closely at general categories of expression: oral traditions, beliefs, customs, material culture, and foodways.


1. The concept of occupational technique is developed by Robert S. McCarl, Jr., in his essay "Occupational Folklife: A Theoretical Hypothesis," in Working Americans: Contemporary Approaches to Occupational Folklife, edited by Robert H. Byington. Smithsonian Folklife Series, no. 3 (Los Angeles: California Folklore Society, 1978), 3-18.

2. Interview with oyster shucker Virginia Duggar of Apalachicola, Florida, recorded October 10, 1986, by David Taylor. On deposit at Florida Folklife Archives, Bureau of Florida Folklife Programs, White Springs, Florida.

3. For a detailed description of activities in Maryland oyster houses, see: Paula J. Johnson, "'Sloppy Work for Women': Shucking Oysters on the Patuxent," in Working the Water: The Commercial Fisheries of Maryland's Patuxent River, edited by Paula J. Johnson, 35-51 (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1988)

4. For a fine description of the expressive dimension of oyster shucking, see: Paula J. Johnson, "'Sloppy Work for Women': Shucking Oysters on the Patuxent." In Working the Water: The Commercial Fisheries of Maryland's Patuxent River, edited by Paula J. Johnson (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1988), 35-51.

5. For illustrations of this process, see: Hufford, One Space, Many Places, 58; Gary R. Butler, "Culture, Cognition, and Communication: Fishermen's Location Finding in L'Anse-a-Canards, Newfoundland," Canadian Folklore Canadien 5, nos. 1-2 (1983): 7-21, and Shepard Forman, "Cognition and The Catch: The Location of Fishing Spots in a Brazilian Coastal Village," Ethnology 6, no. 4 (1967): 417-26.

6. Anthropological studies of traditional systems of navigation include: Richard Feinberg, Polynesian Seafaring and Navigation: Ocean Travel in Anutan Culture and Society (Kent, Ohio, and London: The Kent State University Press, 1988), Thomas Gladwin, East is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), and David Lewis, We, the Navigators (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1972).


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   May 15, 2015
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