A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from October 20, 2019
Lobster Trick (Lobster Shift)

The “lobster shift” (or “lobster trick") was the early morning shift on a New York City newspaper, usually from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. These “lobster” positions were often given to new or undesirable workers. “‘Lobster’ shift was printed in The Morning Telegraph (New York, NY) on March 12, 1901. “For a year past he had been working on what is called ‘the lobster trick,’ going to work at 2 o’clock in the morning and assisting in getting out the latest afternoon extra, which appears on the streets at 8 a. m.” was printed in The Sunday Telegraph (New York, NY) on July 14, 1901.

The origin of the term “lobster” is unknown, but there are several theories:

. Lobster fishermen work alone during these hours. See the explanation below, August 6, 1960. However, there is no indication that this is the origin. What would New York City newspapermen know about Maine lobster fishermen?
. The men on this shift looked like lobsters. See the explanation below, January 21, 1928. Do sleepy men look like lobsters?
. The term is related to the then-popular lobster palaces. See the explanation below, August 2, 1960. Yes, the lobster palaces had lobster dinners until the early morning hours, but not this late. The people who worked this shift probably couldn’t afford to eat lobster, anyway.
. “Lobster" meant a fall guy. The person who worked this shift was a patsy. See the explanation below, March 2, 1958. This is probably closest to the truth. Upstate local newspapers resented these “lobster” editions and criticized them as old, fake news. These editions were simply the same as earlier editions, very slightly changed. The “lobster trick” was in disguising these editions and pretending they were something new.


Wiktionary: lobster shift
Noun
lobster shift
(plural lobster shifts)
1. a work shift that covers late evening and early morning hours.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
lobster shift noun
Definition of lobster shift
: a work shift (as on a newspaper) that covers the late evening and early morning hours
— called also lobster trick
First Known Use of lobster shift

circa 1933, in the meaning defined above

Chronicling America
3 August 1890, The Sun (New York, NY), ‘The Gloomy Lobster,” pg. 22, col. 2:
“Don’t you want to see a lobster trick?”

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
12 March 1901, The Morning Telegraph (New York, NY), pg. 4, col. 1:
JOCKEY COCHRAN IN GREAT FORM AT NEW ORLEANS
(...)
NEW ORLEANS, March 11.—It was not the “lobster” shift that Cochran had at the Fair Grounds to-day.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
14 July 1901, The Sunday Telegraph (New York, NY), “Victims Hit by Iron Ball; Missile Crashes Through Corridor of the Pulitzer Building,” pg. 2, col. 1:
For a year past he had been working on what is called “the lobster trick,” going to work at 2 o’clock in the morning and assisting in getting out the latest afternoon extra, which appears on the streets at 8 a. m.

Newspapers.com
27 December 1904, Paducah (KY) Evening Sun, pg. 4, col. 3:
THIRD PROMOTION IN THREE MONTHS
Mr. I. S. Cobb Night Editor Of New York Sun.
Has Charge of an Entire Crew Who Get Out the Early Edition of the Paper.

(...)
He (Irvin S. Cobb—ed.) now has charge of the force which prepares matter for the early edition of the Sun. This edition goes on the street at 10 a.m. and in New York newspaper parlance, the crew is known as “the Lobster trick.”

They go to work at 2 a. m. and quite work at 8 a. m. when the regular staff takes charge.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
18 March 1905, Amsterdam (NY) Evening Recorder and Daily Democrat, “The Lobster Shift,” pg. 4, col. 7:
The above appellation applies to the men who work from 2 o’clock in the morning until 9 o’clock in the forenoon, in the offices of certain New York newspapers. This “shift” have placed before them proofs of all cable, telegraph and local matter which appears in the regular morning editions of the papers for which they work. This matter is all rewritten, elaborated and semi-faked, then set in type and an “evening edition” is printed with the matter thus handled.

These “evening editions” are offered for sale the same afternoon in Amsterdam and other cities which regular evening editions of New York papers cannot reach by 6 o’clock. The papers are printed about 9 o’clock in the morning and the contempt in which they are held by metropolitan newspaper men accounts for the odious phrase “Lobster Shift” which is applied to the men doing the faking.

Newspapers.com
20 March 1905, Poughkeepsie (NY) Daily Eagle, pg. 4, col. 1:
“LOBSTER” NEWSPAPERS.—In New York, where such a multitude of various newspaper editions are gotten out, there is a class of men who work from about two o’clock in the morning until nine in the forenoon. When they come to work the proofs in the regular morning editions are placed before them and they go to work on them. They rewrite and elaborate and “fake” as much in addition as they dare, and then what they produce is put in type and printed in editions which are issued about nine o’clock in the morning, but which are called “evening papers,” being designed especially for the consumption of places at a little distance from New York, where there may be people foolish enough to believe that such a rehash of what has already appeared in the regular morning editions includes later news and therefore buy it. The men who do this work are known to the trade as the “lobster shift,” and the term, with all the significance that it has attained in the current slang of the day, ought to be applied to the stuff they prepare and the newspapers which print it.
(...)
The gullibility of some people seems to be without limit, but we should think that people of common sense would learn after a while to know that things printed in these “lobster” editions, which only have their origin in the “lobster” shift, are not worth reading, no matter how cheap these editions are sold, or how big head they have, or how loudly they are announced by their venders.

OCLC WorldCat record
On the “lobster shift”, or, the Herald’s star reporter
Author: A Howard De Witt; Dime Novel Collection.
Publisher: New York : Frank Tousey, 1906.
Series: Wide awake weekly, no. 20.
Edition/Format: Print book : Fiction : Juvenile audience : English

Newspapers.com
20 May 1906, Chicago (IL) Sunday Tribune, “Machines Weave Magic Spell Over Men Operating Them” by Clyde Haines, Worker’s Magazine, pt. 6, pg. 1, col. 6:
Complete Absorption of Operator.
(...)
In some of the big job offices they run a ‘lobster’ shift—from 1 till 7:30 in the morning.

Google Books
Making a Newspaper
By John La Porte Given
New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company
1907
Pg. 106:
In the office of an evening paper which issues a very early edition the man who reads the papers begins work at 2 o’clock in the morning, and half an hour later the four or five reporters constituting what among newspaper men is known as the “gas house gang,” because supposedly there are some gas house laborers who start to work at 2.30 o’clock in the morning, report for duty. Almost always these reporters, who usually refer to their period of work as the “lobster trick,” arrive sleepy-eyed and out of humor.

Newspapers.com
5 May 1907, The Illustrated Buffalo Express (Buffalo, NY), “Grist for Mark’s Advertising Mill,” pg. 15, col. 5:
The story created a sensation among the humorist’s (Mark Train’s—ed.) friends, but long before they were awake or knew anything about it, the home of Mr. Twain in lower Fifth avenue was surroudned by several battalions of evening newspaper reporters who work on the lobster trick and help to get out the lemon edition at 5 a. m.

Newspapers.com
14 February 1911, Atchison (KS) Daily Globe, pg. 4, col. 4:
“Jim" Howe, of Atchison, a Reporter on the New York Journal, Writes of His Experiences
(...)
One gang goes on at 2 o’clock in the morning ,and is through at 10 o’clock. This is called the “lobster” shift.

The “lobster” shift, owing to the undesirable hours, works only seven hours. The other shifts on the Hearst newspapers work eight hours.

Google Books
Stickfuls:
Compositions of a Newspaper Minion

By Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb
New York, NY: George H. Doran COmpany
1923
Pg. 146:
In Park Row parlance the staff that gets out this 8 A. M. edition is known as the lobster trick. A man assigned to that shift says he is working on the lobster.

Newspapers.com
21 January 1928, Modesto (CA) News-Herald, “New York, Day by Day” by O. O. McIntyre, pg. 18, col. 8:
New York newspapers work in three shifts, the last of which is from 2 a. m. to 10 a. m. as a general thing. This is the “lobster trick” and is reputed to have been so named by a printer who came in one night at the inception of the idea and; gazing at the boys around the copy desk, observed: “You boys certainly look like a bunch of lobsters.” Men on the lobster trick became accustomed to stirring out of sleep at midnight to reach their posts. Save on off days they have little companionship, for they go to bed in the early afternoon and everybody is working in the morning. Yet men have grown gray on “the lobster trick,” preferring the odd hours and isolation to the usual hurly burly of the print shop.

Newspapers.com
11 September 1935, Birmingham (AL) News, “New York Day by Day” by O. O. McIntyre, pg. 6, col. 5:
What the newspaper editorial room knows as the lobster trick is perhaps the profession’s most inglorious post, and yet in ways vastly important. The origin of the term is vague and has many versions, but is descriptive of the watchman on the guard, as a rule, from 1 a.m. until the arrival of the regular morning staff. The man on the lobster trick is often a one-man editorial force, executing a score of different tasks. If a cataclysmic story breaks he is the general in command, routing the various departments and starting the first motions that in a short time will have the presses awhirr with extra editions. Sometimes he is one who has served in the highest posts at home and abroad, but on the down grade prefers anonymity of the lobster trick.

Newspapers.com
26 March 1943, Honolulu (HI) Advertiser, “Miss Fixit Answers,” pg. 8, col. 5:
In journalism, “lobster shift” or “lobster trick,” means the duty after the morning paper has gone to press and before the arrival of the day staff—called also “sunrise watch.”

Newspapers.com
2 March 1958, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), “Among Friends” by Bill Boni, pg. 2, col. 1:
Anybody Stuck on Late Shift Was a Patsy
“I am inclined to think,” Meyer Berger writes, “that ‘lobster trick’ had its origin in the ‘80s or ‘90s, when the term ‘lobster’ meant a fall guy. Certainly a newspaper man who found himself stuck on the lobster trick in any town was apt to be a patsy. I am only guessing on this, but I am fairly certain that’s the way it would work out.”

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
2 August 1960, The Knickerbocker News (Albany, NY), “‘Lobster Trick’ Origin Vague” by Charles L. Mooney, pg. B11, col. 1:
The lobster trick, for the benefit of any uninitiate who may be around, ordinarily goes from midnight to 8 a.m., 1 a. m. to 9 a. m., or in similar after-midnight hours when most respectable persons are in bed.

Editor & Publisher dug up and old lobster trick man who, asked for his version of the term’s origin, said: “Lobster trick staffers go to work long before sunup, at an hour when late lobster supper parties are popularly supposed to disperse, and only an owl could see with artificial light.”

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
6 August 1960, The Knickerbocker News (Albany, NY), “Query Gets Real Haul” by Charles L. Mooney, pg. B16, col. 1:
WE HAD scarcely gone to press with a discussion of the term “lobster trick” than a letter arrived from Paul G. Heisler, the well known Albany photographer.

Mr. Heisler got his reply in so fast we suspect he must have worked a lobster trick of his own to get it in the mails. He enclosed a picture from the Saturday Evening Post of last July 16 captioned “Lobster Trick,” showing lobster boats just visible in the haze off the Maine coast.

The picture was taken in what is described as “ the misty interregnum between night and day, sleeping and waking—that dismal interval known to newspapermen as the ‘lobster trick’.” It added that “most lobstermen work alone, with only the wheeling, squealing gulls for company.”

Well, in a far off era in the newspaper business we worked a lobster trick alone, too, but we didn’t even have gulls for company. Perhaps it WAS down Maine that the term “lobster trick” originated.

American Heritage
The Lobster Shift
February/March 1993
Volume 44 Issue 1
As a graduate of one newspaper’s postmidnight “lobster shift,” I recall being told in the late 1940s one theory regarding the origin of that expression, mentioned in the July/August edition (“Brisk Walk and Brusque Talk” by Gene Smith). And it doesn’t involve the beloved lobster, in any condition. The root of the word is merely “lob,” an English slang import meaning blockhead, buffler, idler, or similar pejorative applied to journalistic neophytes who were routinely assigned to this dead period, generally to keep them out of the mainstream of news—and thus out of trouble’s way.

Google Books
I, Lobster:
A Crustacean Odyssey

By Nancy Frazier
Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press
2012
Pg. 37:
The New York press covered the rich and famous of the lobster palaces and coined a related phrase of its own, “lobster trick.” In the 1940s, the newspaperman H. L. Mencken was asked for help in drawing up a definition of the term, which by then was outdated. He described it as a work shift that started after midnight: “In those days anyone who was astir at 2 a.m. was regarded as a gay dog, and gay dogs were currently supposed to spend all their time after midnight eating lobster and drinking champagne with chorus girls. It is thus quite possible...that the lobster trick at the start meant a tour of duty during the lobster hours.”

Google Books
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
By Jonathon Green
New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
2005
Pg. 890:
lobster-shift n. (also lobster-trick) [1920s+] (US) a late-night work shift, [the slow pace of the crustacean, i.e. such a shift, usu. between 2 a.m. and 9 a.m. is rarely busy]

Google Books
The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
Edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor
New York, NY: Routledge
2013
Pg. 1407:
lobster shift noun a work shift starting at midnight US, 1942

Gothamist
The End Of The ‘Lobster Trick’ And The Slow Death Of Overnight NYC Tabloid Journalism
BY JB NICHOLAS
OCT. 17, 2019 12:31 P.M.
(...)
Two weeks ago, the Daily News eliminated its overnight shift for news photographers, known as the “lobster trick.”
(...)
“They called it the lobster trick,” (Charles—ed.) Ruppmann said. “They called it that because that’s when the lobster came in, when they brought it into the Fulton Fish Market.”

Ruppmann explained, “In the lobster trick there were two shifts. You could be assigned from 12 to 8 a.m., or you could be assigned from 1 to 9 a.m.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityMedia/Newspapers/Magazines/Internet • Sunday, October 20, 2019 • Permalink