Joseph Mitchell’s Human Interest in the Fulton Fish Market

Jonathan H. Rees

During lockdown, when I wasn’t teaching history online, I read old newspaper and magazine articles about the Fulton Fish Market—hundreds of them, if not several thousand. These stories form the core of my new history of that New York City institution. Among the great number and variety of sources I consulted, they proved to be the most important because the archival record of the Fulton Fish Market in New York City itself is surprisingly small.

Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker magazine is probably the writer most closely associated with the Fulton Fish Market, but little of his published work was about the operation of the market itself. Mitchell wrote about the bottom of New York Harbor, fishermen who sold their catch at the market, and a restaurant owner who cooked the fish that was sold there, but not the market as an enterprise. The closest he came to actually writing about the business was in his three fictional “Old Mr. Flood” stories. Based in large part upon Mitchell himself, that character was a retired owner of a demolition and salvage firm who just liked visiting the Fulton Fish Market, not someone who actually worked there.

He was a people person who was more interested in the fascinating characters he met at the market than in the fish.

The collection of Mitchell’s papers in the New York Public Library shows that he was working on a history of the market during the final years of his life. The subject proved inscrutable to him, perhaps because of his long struggle with writer’s block. To me, however, Mitchell’s published writings offered a good perspective on how to tackle this history. The market itself should not be viewed in isolation. Whenever he wrote about seafood, Mitchell liked to follow a dish back to its source or forward to the place where it got consumed. This was true of clams, shad, and even the terrapin stew that was available for sale around the market. Mitchell’s stories indirectly traced the supply chains for seafood of all kinds. The Fulton Fish Market served as the hub for all of those chains.

That is why far more journalists than just Mitchell visited the market over its long history. Starting well back in the nineteenth century, reporters from all the New York papers, along with many from around the country, visited Lower Manhattan in order to see where seafood originated. (And for all of the nineteenth century—and some of the twentieth—New York City was the hub for seafood provisioning chains that reached as far west as Denver.) The Fulton Fish Market, filled with exotic fish and colorful characters, was an easy human interest story, as long as the reporter was willing to get up very early in the morning. That’s when all the action occurred.

…Mitchell’s focus on these unique personalities is what separated his writing from that of every other reporter.

Thanks to all the newspaper scanning that’s happened over the last two decades or so, I could do much of my research for this book while locked down in my house, staring at a computer screen, eighteen hundred miles away from New York City. I did find some really important sources in museums and archives scattered around the city, but all those newspaper and magazine articles offered an irreplacable picture of change over time. When gathered together, all these stories about a place that never seemed to change document many, many changes between its first days in the 1820s and its last days at the start of the twenty-first century.

Joseph Mitchell, on the other hand, found all those newspaper articles lacking. He was a people person who was more interested in the fascinating characters he met at the market than in the fish. Famous for his profiles, he’d rather interview his friend “Sloppy” Louis Morino or invent a fictional observer of the place, like Old Mr. Flood, than waste too much space discussing actual seafood. When I was starting my research, I expected to find more about those kinds of people, but I soon realized that Mitchell’s focus on these unique personalities is what separated his writing from that of every other reporter. Although I quote Mitchell’s work often in mine, he probably wouldn’t have approved of the fact that like most of the writers who visited the market, I decided to focus on the fish.

This is the first book-length history of the Fulton Fish Market; hopefully it won’t be the last. There is an excellent opportunity for interested institutions in New York City to gather all the surviving documentation, the huge variety of ephemera, and especially the stories of the Fulton Fish Market held and known by the alumni and heirs to the traditions of that place. Future historians of this place can then write more about the people who made the market special and less about the fish. Joseph Mitchell would certainly approve.

Jonathan H. Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University–Pueblo and the author of The Fulton Fish Market: A History.

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