To this day, I don’t know why they call it the lobster shift. They ought to call it the mental-illness shift, because when you work overnight long enough and sleep all day long enough, your skin gets bad and you’re always pale and you find you have two modes, depression and anxiety. Peggy Noonan, What I Saw At the Revolution
When I first started working at newspapers, in the mid-70s, the midnight to 8 am shift was called, not the “graveyard shift,” but the “lobster shift” or “lobster trick.” It was suggested that the name started because many of the staff would go drinking before work and come in “boiled,” but that seems like a stretch. William Fisher
The graveyard shift has had other, more mysterious names – dog watch, lobster trick, lobster shift. According to The Word Detective, “dog watch” dates back to the eighteenth-century, when it was used by sailors for the two-hour evening watches (4 to 6, and 6 to 8). These watches were unpopular because they made the sailor miss the usual dinnertime. In the twentieth century it became a name for the – also unpopular – night shift.
“Trick” is also a nautical term, meaning duty at the helm. The lobster trick (or shift) seems to have its roots in the newspaper industry. It was used, from the early twentieth century, for the “force which occupies the [newspaper] office in the very early morning interval after the last regular morning edition has gone to press” (the journal American Speech, 1927).
The Word Detective also traces the phrase to the newspaper industry:
The origin of “lobster shift” … has been disputed almost since it first appeared in the 1940s. The story about newspapermen arriving for their shift as florid as lobsters is certainly possible, as is the less plausible explanation that there was so little to do on the night shift that the staff dined out on lobster and champagne in the wee hours. But the truth, sad to say, is that “lobster” was, beginning in the 19th century, popular slang in New York City for “a fool or dupe,” probably because lobsters were considered very stupid creatures. So “lobster shift” probably reflects the sentiment that only a fool (or an incompetent worker) would wind up working the midnight shift.
The Mavens’ Word of the Day cites Stephen Crane, writing in 1894: “Anybody could see that you, Thorpey, me boy, could make a lobster out of Holmes.” The author also wonders if the term has “its origins in American contempt for defeated British soldiers”:
It’s not as much of a stretch as you might think. The use of the term lobster to mean ‘a British soldier’ originates in the appellation that arose for the heavily armored cavalry soldiers in one of the regiments in Oliver Cromwell’s army. There’s a 1642 citation stating that the nickname was being “misapplied to soldiers,” which shows that it moved pretty quickly from referring to armored cavalry to regular soldiers, and then of course to the famously red-coated soldiers who were defeated in America’s Revolutionary War, who were still referred to as lobsters until early in the 20th century.