Mississippi: Oyster Shuckers

Child Labor in the American South: Mississippi: Oyster Shuckers

Jessica Lester

The purpose of this essay is to delve into the world of child labor by using Lewis Hine’s excellent collection of photographs. During the early 20th century Lewis Hine went into different areas of industry all around the United States taking photographs of the poor, small children working in the many factories or mills. At times Lewis Hine had to sneak into the areas of business to take the pictures of the children because the supervisors did not allow the pictures to be taken. He risked many different dangers by venturing into the many different mills and factories without the permission of the owners but he did all of this for the great cause of getting the horrendous act of child labor out into the public for all the world to see.

Oyster shucking became a very important industry in the south during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It provided most of the economic prosperity for different areas of the Deep South. Oyster shucking involves many different activities that people could participate/work in. First, the oysters had to be “trolled” (Schmidt) out of the muddy water and put into buckets to be shipped off to the shuckers. Next the shuckers, after they received the oysters, took a prying knife, opened the oyster (forcefully), cut out the oyster meat and put the meat into cups. The cups held up to one gallon of oysters and shuckers could shuck between two and four thousand oysters in a days time. The oysters when then packed and shipped out all over America, thanks to the creation of refrigeration of railroad cars. The oysters were popular all over America but the actual oyster shucking took place in the south where the salty waters of the gulf and Atlantic Ocean are located. One of the main oyster shucking companies in the south that was most important was located in Mississippi.

Mississippi was very important to the oyster shucking industry. Its perfect location on the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean made it extremely effortless to find and troll oysters. Because oyster shucking was so popular it was tremendously easy to get a job participating in it. With oyster shucking, many jobs were opening up giving the people of Mississippi a bigger variety of jobs to choose from. The oyster shucking company gave jobs to anyone who needed or wanted one, not including the African Americans, and the industry liked using child labor because the children could be worked to the bone with little or no pay (Schmidt).

The first picture portrays a large group of young children (who look as if they aren’t older than nine years of age) standing on a large stack of oyster shells. As it says in the caption all of these children were there to shuck the oysters or possibly baby-sit the babies that were on the site with their parents, who probably also worked at the shucking company. As stated in the original caption for this picture, these children were at the Pass Paoking Co. in Mississippi and apparently they were all there before daylight. The picture had to be taken while the foreman was away attending to some problem because he refused to give Lewis Hine the permission to take it because of the child labor problems that had started to arise.


The next picture is of a group of seven boys, looking as if they range from the ages of six to about ten. The six boys in front were oyster shuckers. The boy standing behind them in the black, as said by the caption, was not a shucker. He could have possibly been the over looker of the younger boys making sure they do their job without any problems. This picture was taken at the Pass Christian Company in Mississippi and these boys are not looking happy at all. They were probably forced into working here on account of there families were probably poor and needed all the extra money that they could get.


The third picture in the packet is consistent with the first one. It is a large group of children between the ages of five and ten but instead of actually standing on a large pile of oyster shells they are standing on a deck that is over top of a large pile of oyster shells. The photo also includes many different older men standing around but the caption makes no mention as to who they are and why they are standing around the children. They cannot be any of the supervisors because the caption says that they were not around because they do not permit photos to be taken of the children. It looks as if most of the oyster shucking was done by the boys while the girls took care of the babies their parents had to leave behind so they could also go work. This picture, like the one before it, was taken at the Pass Christian Co. in Mississippi.


The fourth picture is of a nine year old girl, Mary Morris, who was an oyster shucker. Mary was also a worker at the Pass Christian Co. in Mississippi. She was just one of the hundreds of young girls who were made to shuck oysters for this company; she probably never got a break and when she was able to eat lunch she was most likely only give about fifteen or twenty minutes to do so. The girl in this photo looks exhausted and nowhere near the way a nine year old is supposed to look. She has bags under her eyes and her skin is wrinkled from all the water is around all day. Just looking at this picture shows people the kind toll this hard labor had on children.


The fifth picture is of three female workers leaving the Pass Christian Co. after a thirteen hour work day. The caption states that the workers went in at 4am and are seen leaving at 5pm. This, from the all the information that has been found, seems like the normal work day for most factory and mill workers, no matter what age they happened to be. The youngest of the female workers is seen totting a baby or a small child back to their home. The worker carrying the child looks about twelve or thirteen years of age. She probably had to bring the child to work with her because there was most likely no one else at home to watch over it. The child probably sat her feet and kept itself entertained while the girl shucked oysters for most of the day. The girl and the other two females in this photo most likely had no kind of break throughout the day and almost certainly didn’t make more than $2.00 a day (Schmidt).


I believe that child labor is one of the many horrible instances of America’s past. How could people put such small children to work under such harsh circumstances? The poor children had no idea what horrible problems they would encounter by working at such a young age. They were treated with no respect and could have basically been considered slaves by how little they were paid. These Lewis Hine pictures show the people of today how badly the children were treated at these industries and what side effects working had on them. Some of the children in his photos looked as if they were twenty or thirty years of age when, as a matter of fact, they were only eight or nine. I feel children shouldn’t be working at all and especially not at that age. The children of this child labor era had no life, they probably didn’t know what it was like to go outside and play with their friends or to sit in their room and play with their toys. I think being thrown into the working world before you can experience any part of life is a terrible thing, especially if you are five or six years old when it happens to you. Also, these pictures give us a look into the life of a middle or lower class child in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Our life is extremely different from the lives of those children in the photographs, and I’m not sure if the children of today could even fathom the thought of having to partake in those types of hard labor. I believe that the pictures that Lewis Hine took has shed a great new light onto the horrible aspects of child labor, especially of the child labor in America that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.