Maryland: Cannery Workers

Child Labor in the American South: Maryland Cannery Workers

Eytan Kaplowitz 

As America began to move from an agrarian to an industrialized society in the 19th and 20th centuries, new social problems began to develop in response to this shift. One of these problems, the use of child labor, led to the creation of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in 1904, whose purpose was to force child labor reform. The committee sent out investigators to document evidence of child labor, and one of the most famous of these investigators was Lewis Wickes Hine (Hindman, 10). His camera was able to capture the laboring of children, and their hardship and struggles, which was important as it brought to the forefront an issue that "public opinion had yet to be turned against" (Hindman, 52). One of the targets his camera locked on to was the J.S. Farrand Packing Company, a cannery in Baltimore, Maryland. His compelling photographs were able to give an impression of the strenuous and dangerous work children did, and of all the disadvantages they had to face. 

Tin canning, replacing the more expensive and less efficient preservation of food in glass containers, made it possible for food to be processed on a massive scale. The first cannery was built in Baltimore in 1850 (Burton, 21, 23, 25). By the 1880s, Baltimore had become the "center of canning in the United States, with around 300 canneries in the state" (Burton, 28), and by 1925, was the third largest State in terms of the vegetable and fruit canning industry (Matthews, 131). As the canning industry grew in Maryland, the demand for cheap labor arose, and luckily, there was a demographic to fill it: Children. By 1925, canneries employed more children than any other industry in Maryland (Matthews, 132).

As seen from the picture below, the J.S. Farrand Packing Company of 1909 was a bean cannery when Hine took his photographs, although it was common for "Maryland canneries (to) put up a number of different kinds of vegetables and fruits at different seasons of the year" (Matthews, 88). The cannery was located in Fell's Point (Greff, 34), a part of Baltimore City.  There was a 1906 Maryland law forbidding the employment of children in Baltimore City, but as investigators discovered in 1918 and 1925, much of the child labor legislation was not being followed in Maryland vegetable canneries (Matthews, 86, 100-103, 132-134).

The "many youngsters who work here" (see picture) as Hine wrote, would sort, snip, and string beans in preparation for the canning process. In 1911, an investigation made by the United States Bureau of Labor with regards to employment in Maryland canneries discovered that a surprising number of young children worked there (Matthews, 85). It was not uncommon in canneries to have children, some as young as four years old, snip beans for twelve hours a day and sometimes longer. They would be roused in the early morning and forced to go "to the shed where the beans were waiting to be snipped" (Brown, 13).  In 1912, three years after Hine took his photographs, a Maryland law was enacted "prohibiting the employment of children under 12 in canneries" (Matthews, 86), but even as late as 1925, canneries still were exempt from the "maximum 8 hour day that applies to the work of children under 16" (Matthews, 97)

Group of Workers Stringing Beans

The conditions within the vegetable canneries could be horrendous. As the picture below shows, the children stringing the beans would sit on boxes and crates with no back support, and these children were the lucky ones. A Maryland law in 1882 required only Baltimore City canneries to give the women and children seats, and this was still in effect by 1925 (Matthews, 91). The noise in the cannery would be deafening as hundreds of cans would drop down from the top floor, empty and ready to be filled (Eschenbrenner, 21). There are reports of children carrying loads weighing 25 to 50 pounds, and that "it was no unusual thing to see children bending under the strain of carrying boxes and baskets of snipped beans...for considerable distances" (Goldmark, 15).

Group Showing a Few of the Workers Stringing Beans in the J.S. Farrand Co.

Children would be worked so hard that they would sometimes fall asleep at their bean stringing post, not even able to make it to their bed (Brown, 14). Their bed was not much to speak of either. Families working in the canneries would often be assigned a single bunk for all of them, regardless of age and gender (Berry and Vegetable, 19). In 1911, fifty percent of the canneries visited by the Children's Bureau in Maryland had dormitory style living, where all of the cannery employees would sleep in one large room (Matthews, 126). An overall lack of hygiene within the living structures created an ideal place for disease to fester, making the labor camp that much less appealing (Brown, 16). In 1914, five years after Hine took his photographs, Maryland enacted a law that required cannery owners to build separate facilities for men and women, as well as "water tight roofs and tight board floors" and the building should have "ample light and ventilation" (Matthews, 127).

In addition to back-breaking labor and squalid living conditions, child laborers in the vegetable cannery faced another disadvantage, a lack of schooling. The school year would begin in September but the children from the canneries would often start school a month later (Matthews, 114). A survey taken of Maryland canneries in 1928 discovered that "many of these children...were below the usual grades for their ages" (Berry and Vegetable, 23). A comparative study of fruit and vegetable canneries in seven states in 1925 discovered that children from Maryland canneries were "found to be unusually backward in school as compared with those in the other States studied" (Matthews, 114).

Children did not only have to deal with the terrible living conditions and the strenuous labor of preparing the vegetables for canning, but also had to worry about the canning machinery itself. Some children, even as young as eight, were assigned to put the tops on the cans that were then soldered by the machine next to them (Photographs, 40). The wages were better on the capping line as it was considered factory work (Hindman, 277), but it was an extremely strenuous task, as one had to keep up with the machine, and machines do not need to sleep and replenish. The task was dangerous as well. One school girl complained that while working at capping cans she "grew so tired from the constant pressure of keeping up with the machine, and so sick from the fumes of the acid used for soldering she had to give it up" (Eschenbrenner, 21).

A Maryland law in 1912 forbade the use of children younger than sixteen to work "on any machine or machinery operated by power" (Matthews, 106), although in a survey of Maryland canneries in 1925, there were numerous reports of machinery accidents involving children. Many of them were serious like the "13-year old boy (who) was fatally injured when his clothing was caught and he was drawn into the machinery" and the "15-year old boy" who while "operating a closing machine had his third finger cut off at the first joint" (Matthews, 107).

Dangerous Business. Boy at Canning Machine

A Canning Machine and Some of the Boys

The cannery was certainly no place for a child to work in, or even grow up in, but since families came as a unit to work at the cannery, children often had no choice but to spend their formative years there. In his photographs, Hine captured the essence of this when he showed infants stowed away in boxes in the J.S. Farrand Packing Company as their mothers snipped beans.  The young children would often be grouped together to the side and put under the charge of children little older than they. The older children preferred babysitting the younger children in order to avoid the strenuous activity of snipping and sorting beans (Hindman, 279). Many children were left unsupervised, and would injure themselves, as few factory owners made "a systematic supervise the children" (Matthews, 131).

Interior of a Packing Company

Child labor, captured in still frame by Lewis Hine, was a terrible practice. Much like slaves before the Civil War, these children were worked to exhaustion, prevented from going to school, and rarely saw the fruits of their labors, as their wages were confiscated by their parents (Brown, 15). Hine would take "great personal risk" (Greff, 35) to make sure that this social problem was documented. His work and the work of other investigators in the NCLC were able to sway public opinion, and this was one of the steps that led to legislation of child labor laws. It is a testament to Hine's skill that his photographs are still powerful today. Although a century old and in black and white, Hine's photographs still have resonance as they depict an ugly chapter of American history, and are a reminder that child labor still goes on in the world.