I see you’ve heard of Stompin’ Tom Connors’ number, The Irish Moss Song. As you may know, Stompin’ Tom lived on PEI – in Skinners’ Pond specifically, where he often got to see fishermen harvesting this popular seaweed. He was impressed by their work so that’s why he wrote that song.
As you can see in the two enclosed pictures, Irish moss is a seaweed that can range in color from black to brown to purple to green. It is harvested because it is used to produce carrageenan, a gelatin-type substance that is used to hold together a variety of consumable products – everything from makeup and soap to Jell-O, ice cream and beer.
It grows wild particularly off the shores of the United Kingdom and used to grow in large quantities around the western shores of PEI. It could be harvested either by fishing boats with underwater drags or, when it washed ashore, it could be harvested either by hand (with pitchforks) or by horse-riding fishermen dragging scoops behind them in the shoreline waves. It was quite a spectacle to watch. (A side industry of raising horses particularly for this industry was fairly lucrative for a number of years).
When I was a kid, my father harvested Irish moss by pitchfork along the shore. I remember clearly that all of us kids would help pitch in with spreading the moss on the ground to dry it then flipping it over with a pitchfork when the top was dried. We’d then scoop it all up and go sell it for a few cents a pound. Drying the moss was obviously more work but the payout was better than it was for wet moss.
I also did a bit of moss harvesting myself, by hand, as a young teenager. It was actually my first paying job.
As a variety of invasive seaweed plants took over the Irish moss beds, the quality of the local moss went down dramatically – as did its quantity. For these reasons, the local industry completely died out. Here’s a newspaper article from 2015 on the topic.
So there you have it! Thanks for inquiring!