Maryland: Berry Pickers

Child Labor in the American South:  Maryland  Berry Pickers

Eileen Jeanneret 

By the turn of the twentieth century agricultural child labor was one of the most serious child labor problems in America.  Efforts to curtail agricultural child labor abuses met with steadfast opposition from the Federal government, state legislatures, and society at large.  The current Federal statutes afforded protection to the mining and manufacturing child laborers but remained silent on agriculture.  In 1900 there was an estimated one million agricultural child laborers working in the fields but by 1910 the number of children had risen to 1.5 million.  The enactment of the mining and manufacturing Federal statutes appeared to have pushed more child laborers into the unregulated agriculture industry.  The twenty eight state legislatures that had passed child labor laws found the laws were rendered ineffective and supplanted by economic needs and prevailing social mores.  Farmers from rural areas traditionally held prominent positions in State legislatures and many abused their authority by vetoing agricultural child labor legislation for personal gain.  Small farm owners usually kept their children at home to help work the farm, to make ends meet.  State and Federal authorities believed it was outside their authority to interfere with the economic decisions of family run businesses.  Many people believed that farm child laborers reaped many benefits from having the "luxury" of working alongside their parents "who were teaching them useful farming skills."  Compared to working in the factories and mines, being able to work outside in the fresh air was considered to be a healthy and wholesome environment for a child. (Hindman 249; Trattner 40, 41, 145-149, 153; White House Conference 213, 214)

In Maryland, most agricultural child laborers and their families were transported to local berry farms to work as berry pickers.  In early May the farmers, or more likely the row bosses, would gather the workers by driving their wagons, like the one pictured in the link below, up and down the streets of the Polish and Bohemian neighborhoods of Baltimore literally calling out ‘Strawberry hands! Strawberry hands!'  (Lumpkin, 71).  The families would gather outside with their food stuffs, clothing, bedding and any other necessities they would need for their stay and load their things and themselves into the wagons.  They were then transported to the local berry farms on the outskirts of Baltimore.  The fathers and older sons of these families remained in Baltimore if they had steady employment.  Those fathers and sons who did not have jobs, or the jobs paid too little, went along to the farms with their families.  As an aside, a row boss was a middleman who gathered, transported and managed the payment arrangements of the workers.  He also remained at the farm to supervise the families when working in the fields.  Row bosses generally took advantage of the families and found many creative ways to extract "fees" from the families for his "services". (Hindman 250-253, 271-275; Lumpkin 68-71; NCLC-Agr-Md-be2 2, 3; White House Conference 232-235)

Off to the Berry Farms of Maryland

The number of weeks each family worked on the farms varied according to their economic needs; however, most families remained on the farms for six to eight weeks.  The berry picking season began in early May with strawberry picking.  Near the end of the strawberry picking season the workers picked peas, gooseberries, raspberries, and then the season ended in July with bean picking.  At the conclusion of the Maryland berry picking season the row boss filled his wagon with families who intended to continue working through the fall.  These families were transported to the cranberry bogs of New Jersey where they labored until late September.  By October or November many of the families returned to their Baltimore city dwellings.  The immigrant families and families who didn't have jobs to return to in the city were generally transported to the Gulf coast to work in shrimp and oyster canneries through the winter season.  Johnnie Yellow, the young Polish boy pictured in the link below, worked as a child farm laborer year round.  He told an investigator from the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) that he had spent nine years working in Biloxi MS during the winter months and he had been working at Bottomley Farm in Rock Creek, near Baltimore, for the past three summers. Johnnie also stated he was 10 years old which meant he had been working in the fields, year round, his entire life.  It is possible Irvan may not have known how old he really was.  The investigator reported that it appeared many children interviewed seemed to arbitrarily state an age when asked.  It was likely the children were told to lie. (Hindman, 252, 253, 272, 275, 276;NCLC-Agr-Md-be2, 2)

Johnnie Yellow, A young Polish Berry Picker

The early May opening of strawberry picking season and the late September close of the cranberry picking season caused disruptions in school attendance.  Most agricultural child laborers only attended school for about five months of the year from November through April and those children who labored year round generally didn't attend school at all.  An investigation in 1915 by the NCLC of eastern shore Maryland schools with large populations of child berry pickers confirmed the sporadic attendance of these children.  Teachers interviewed stated that many students hadn't taken the end of the school year final examinations because they had already left to work on the farms.  Eight schools closed three weeks early that year because the majority of the school population was out working in the fields.  A review of the fall attendance records of the schools indicated the school year began with about fifty percent of the student population in attendance. The attendance slowly increased over the course of the fall as more and more children returned from the cranberry fields of New Jersey. (NCLC-Agr-Md s1, 4-9)

The working conditions endured by the child farm laborers required brutally labor intensive repetitive handwork and long hours of bending and stooping.  The children, ranging in age from about fourteen years of age to about ten years of age, were expected to work from eight to fourteen hours a day, regardless of the weather conditions, performing tediously hand-intensive and literally back-breaking tasks.  The "universal rule in agriculture is for the children to work exactly the same hours as their parents, no matter how long those hours are" (Lumpkin, 69).  Adult factory workers generally worked fewer hours than child farm laborers.  Maryland berry picker Irvan Stevens, pictured in the link below, is seen stooped over picking berries at Curran's Farm in Rock Creek, located near Baltimore.  Irvan told an investigator from the NCLC he worked "from sunup to sundown" and this was his third summer at the farm.  The constant bending and stooping, for hours on end, caused severe back injuries and deformities of the spine in an overwhelming number of child farm laborers and many suffered stunted growth as a result.  Johnnie Yellow, the young Polish boy from Bottomly Farm, noted in the preceding paragraph, suffered from stunted growth as a result of his many years working in the fields.  (Hindman, 254, 255; Lumpkin 59-61; NCLC-Del-1, 2,3; NCLC-Agr Md-be2, 7; Trattner, 150, 151)

Irvan Stevens, A Young Berry Picker

Johnnie Yellow, A Young Polish Berry Picker

The wages for child laborers varied by farm but each child was paid at piecework rates.  Compensation was based on the number of containers filled and/or the number of hours worked, depending on age.  On average, the daily wage for an eight hour work day of a twelve year old Maryland child strawberry picker was between ninety cents and $3.00.  Children under ten years of age were generally not considered "regular workers" and were paid less.  When questioned about berry picking, the determined young six year old girl with her hands thrust against her hips boasted "I'm just beginning" (pictured in the link below).  She said she had picked two boxes of berries the day before.  Often, when young girls her age grew tired from picking berries they were expected to care for babies and toddlers too young to work.   The young girl also said she was paid two cents for each box of berries she turned in.  The children weren't actually paid money though.  Each family generally worked together filling berry buckets and then turned them in to their row boss who gave them a token per bucket.  The tokens were redeemed by the head of the family for cash either at the end of each week or the end of the season.  Children weren't counted as laborers in the records of the farm owner but the parents were paid by number of buckets, regardless of who did the picking.  Farm owners only paid wages to adults as a means of protection against having to accept any legal responsibility for their child laborers.  Any arrangements the row boss made with the families worked in the same manner. (Hindman, 275, 279; Lumpkin, 68; NCLC-Agr Md be2, 7; White House Conference, 243, 245)

A Young 6 Year Old Berry Picker

The labor housing was grossly inadequate and the living conditions were deplorable.  The housing procured for the families was shockingly similar to that provided for farm animals.  In 1913 an investigator from the NCLC reported on the living conditions of farm laborers at area Maryland farms.  The families lived in one room shacks which were about 21 ft by 30 ft or two room shacks which were about 20ft x 36 ft with one room on each floor.  One of the one room shacks housed twenty three pickers plus their children who were too young to pick.  Along the floor of the shacks planks of wood about a foot high were nailed in place to create sleeping areas.  Each was filled with straw and an entire family was expected to sleep in one "bed."  One farmer stated ‘we figure about a foot per person' (Hindman 281).  Each family was usually provided with one chest for storage.  The sleeping areas were described as being ‘covered with dirty, often filthy bedding and soiled clothes...from the ceilings and rafters are suspended lines of clothes of all sorts, while behind the clothes...are articles of food, such as hams and bread' (NCLC-Agr-Md-be2, 4).  The picture link below clearly indicates the investigators report provided a very accurate description of the living conditions.  Each family was provided with an outside stove or they built their own with mud and stones.  Cooking outside was adequate if the weather cooperated.  Most ate their meals outdoors but they were forced to eat in their shacks in bad weather which tended to create a bad odor in the shack and attracted flies.  The only toilet facilities found by the investigator were either "mother nature" or a hole dug in the ground with wood planks on three sides.    (NCLC-Agr-Md-be1, 1-4; NCLC-Agr-Md-be2, 3-6)

Interior of a Berry Picker Shack

The agricultural child laborers were worked beyond exhaustion in the fields and then were forced to live in overcrowded shacks that provided neither comfort nor respite. They were deprived of an education and an opportunity to experience childhood.  Indeed, a miserable way of life for any child to endure.