Patriotic Lobsters: An American Mystery

We regularly drive from Boston to Southern Vermont to visit my partner’s family, up through the Green Mountains. The little two-lane road is deeply atmospheric, in that creepy Ichabod-Crane sort of way: it passes through a few little villages with economies that appear to be largely dependent on flea markets and small-batch artisan pottery. It was as we passed thorough one of these towns that I spotted the Patriotic Lobster, slapped confidently on the side of an otherwise mundane home. It was a wooden lobster painted in red, white, and blue colors, with a bit of rustic flair, the sort of thing you could imagine an old, half-blind lobsterman lovingly crafting in a shack. I had to have it.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find one. You can buy so many weird things in so many places online, but there is one thing you cannot buy online, and that is a hideous red-white-and blue lobster wall-hanging that I can offend my neighbors with. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I think about stealing that Patriotic Lobster, right off the side of the house: I imagine creeping up in a ski-mask and snatching it, then vanishing into the night. I could also, I guess, knock on the door and offer to buy it, a roll of $20s in my hand. (I don’t know what the market value of a wooden Patriotic Lobster is, but it’s priceless to me). But no. I won’t steal it, and I won’t buy it, either. I don’t have the heart, the ruthlessness, to deprive someone of their own horrible lobster.

I have to keep looking.

A French wine merchant apparently thought this was a great way to advertise to Americans, with the terrible baby-clowns and the cruelly-abused draft lobsters. I would like to find out, someday, if it actually worked.

While I haven’t found my very own Patriotic Lobster, I have found lots of other patriotic lobster products. So many that I could probably open up my own highly specialized boutique. Flags. Clothing. Onesies for children. Semi-tasteful wall hangings (which are, obviously, not what I’m searching for). Some even featured crabs or shrimp or crawfish. But the vast majority centered around lobsters, proving that Americans surely must consider lobsters the most patriotic of our native sea-bugs. Lobsters have actually been linked to rah-rah patriotism before, overcoming their initial cultural status as dubious sea-bugs fit only for the tables of the desperate.

During World War II, the U.S. Government found itself with a hefty supply of surplus lobster on its hands, due to the collapse of the export market: the Fisheries Department put out an advertising campaign framing consuming the leggy beasts as an act of patriotism. A 1918 issue of Munsey’s Magazine (which is a danged good name for a publication) noted that it “is a patriot’s duty nowadays to eat lobster,” as a person who consumes less lobster must necessarily eat less pork, beef, and wheat. I also was able to dig up this postcard from early 1900s, which appears to be a French pun about Americans who, you know, ride gigantic lobsters about on the summer shores of Southern France.

But while there is a certain linkage between lobster and heady feelings of country-love, I don’t think this adequately explains the existence of all the patriotic lobster-crap you can buy on the Internet. What message are these object’s makers trying to send here, exactly? Does hanging a flag outside your home with a red and white blue lobster simply symbolize a smidgen of coastal pride, a fondness for lobster rolls? (Which does not explain why one of these Patriotic Lobsters would show up in darkest, landlocked Vermont). Or does it really mean that you love America so much that you’d like to crack its hard exterior exoskeleton and devour the tender flesh within it? Do we wish to extract the essence of America and serve it with some drawn butter on a picnic table in Cape Cod?

God, I don’t know.

All I can say with confidence is that something lurks within the American psyche – within my psyche, I’ll freely confess – that makes us want to make and buy shit with festive red-and-white crustaceans on it. Come with me on a journey through the world of Patriotic Shellfish.

It was the summer of 1999, and innovation was in the air. A Cuffy’s of Cape Cod employee had a brilliant, scandalous idea. You can buy this vintage, “pre-worn” item on eBay.

Your father always did have his lucky lobster-clutching-things collection of belts, for all evening occasions and relevant superstitions. A lobster clutching a Christmas ornament. A lobster clutching a shamrock. A lobster clutching a skull (for Halloween). And then there was this, for the Fourth of July. You hated that belt. Also, I am unsettled by the fact that this product is labeled as “‘patriotic pinchers.”

OK, but what does wearing a tank top with a patriotic lobster on it say about one’s heterosexual masculinity? Is it a straight-up expression of country-love, or sort of a leering joke? Who goes out and specifically orders this sort of thing? Have I just not spent enough time in Maine to understand? I would like to hear your theories.

This is another exceedingly masculine patriotic lobster t-shirt, except it’s a spiny lobster and not the more mundane, less dangerous-to-wrangle American Lobster, which are of course exclusively fished and consumed by delicate pansy wimp-boys. I’ve probably just entirely made up a whole macho rivalry around people who fish for different sorts of lobsters – but what if I haven’t? What if it’s real?

My Patriotic Lobster has taught me this: Americans are absolutely ecstatic over the possibility of dressing their offspring in patriotic crustaceans. I find it a bit tragic, in a way. Why is it assumed that anyone over the age of 10 must surely have too much dignity to adorn themselves in a bunch of nationalistic sea-bugs? Perhaps I too would enjoy a summer swimming set with color-coordinated lobsters. You don’t know me.

If you’d like your little boy to adopt an air of masculine, casual coolness to the world – set him on that path towards success – then you must dress him in inspiring Patriotic Lobsters. I guess this is a thing, for some people.

A number of different outfits sell this patriotic lobster garden flag, which leads me to believe that an actual human being – maybe multiple human beings – has bought one before. I will probably do the same. It calls to me.

This is the best thing I found, of course. It’s an actual, living crawfish that was born patriotic, rendered that way by the semi-benevolent hand of human selective breeding. While I can’t exactly stick it on my wall (that would be mean to the crayfish), I could absolutely buy one of these beauties, put it in a tank, and make all my friends admire it whenever they come over. But I would also have to keep it alive, which is a bigger responsibility than just owning some terrible art. My search will probably continue, but I’m glad to know this guy is at least an option.

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