Louisiana: Oyster Shuckers in Dunbar Cannery

Child Labor in the American South: Louisiana: Oyster Shuckers in Dunbar Cannery

Jason Harrell


Prosperity comes from a people’s ability and willingness to utilize their natural surroundings to the fullest extent in order to maintain stable living conditions. In America, the Native American’s learned to follow the buffalo herds, explorers and other people in the mountains learned to hunt and trap animals, farmers across the country learned to cultivate land to maximize their production and harvest, and the coastal people on the edges of this country learned to fish. The seafood industry has always been a major industrial factor in the South’s economy. Ever since the Native Americans taught European colonists their method of catching oysters on the offshore reefs, oysters have been a profitable enterprise in the seafood industry. (Bellande, Schmidt.)

Like most food producing industries, fishing for oysters is a very labor intensive endeavor. Men would use rakes and tongs to gather oysters from the reefs and then would take their catch back to the boats called schooners or skiffs. Before health regulations, oysters were opened in the water and the shells were left for future oyster development. These health regulations along with the expanding industry called for the use of factories to store and ship oysters. Factories weren’t implemented until the creation of icehouses because of seafood’s highly perishable nature. With the introduction of processing factories or canneries came the constant need for factory workers, which in most cases were women and children; young boys worked in factories until they were old or strong enough to work on the boats with the men. (Bellande, Schmidt.)

In the early stages of the oyster industry most factories or canneries were part of were known as camps. The owners of the factories would set up these camps as self-sufficient communities. They had stores that held the basic necessities for the people who live in the camp, all of whom were workers for the factory. The workers lived in cheap rent row-type-homes like those seen in the photograph “Housing Conditions in the Settlement of Dunbar.” The caption of this photo points out a church in the background and talks of a jail in the settlement. The owners of the factories would do their best to create a sense of community in the camps as well as do what they could to please the workers. These camps and paternalistic nature of the oyster industry came with the unionization and decentralization that occurred when companies that once had owned process, from fishing to processing to shipping, in a way, subcontracted other companies to do different steps of the process. (Bellande, Schmidt.) 

But no matter who owned the company, the factory, the boats, or the cannery, the people who worked in the cannery remained the same. The 14 hour work day in the canneries began around 3:00 AM; each had a whistle with its own unique whistle to call its workers to the cannery. Oyster shucking was what is know as piece work, meaning that the more oysters you would shuck, the more money you would make. Oyster shuckers would use a knife and small pieces of cloth that covered part of their knife hand to cut the oysters from their shells after they had been steamed, a process of opening the oyster’s shells using steam. The scene in the photograph “Group of Oyster Shuckers,” shows the general atmosphere of a cannery. This photo’s caption explains that there are about 300 workers in that room, and tells how the woman in the center of the frame said that her young daughter was a great help to her. Looking at this picture it is easy to get a sense of how it felt to work in one of these canneries. Everyone is wearing heavy clothes or aprons, canneries were notoriously cold, mainly because oyster season was during the winter. It was not uncommon for the women to have relatives bring hot water from their homes or to wrap newspaper around their legs to keep warm. (Bellande, Schmidt.)

Lewis Hine’s photograph “Rosy an Eight Year Old Oyster Shucker” is one of the clearest depictions of the assembly line type of process that occurred in the Dunbar Oyster Cannery. The cart Rosy and the other workers are standing around come into the shucking room on railroad ties from the steaming room. There were normally eight workers around one cart, they would cut the oysters from their shell and place the oysters in the buckets that are hanging from the carts in the picture, the shells were thrown on the ground beneath the tracks or behind the workers like see here in the picture. Huge piles of oyster shells collected outside of the canneries, many canneries tried to maximize their financial income by selling the shells to local cities for fill or for road repairs. Also in this picture you can see how eight workers worked together on the same crate, it was very common for the same eight people to work together day in and day out becoming a close team. And it is also quite visible in this photograph that the children workers were a big part of that team. (Bellande, Schmidt.)

It was quite common for mothers to bring their young children to work with them. Camps and factories did not have babysitters or nurseries so most women would bring their younger children to work, some women made playpens in the factories for their children but most kept their children on the floor next to them, where they could watch and learn how to perform their mother’s task. The photo “Four Year Old Mary, Who Shucks Pots of Oysters,” tells of a mother and daughter at the Dunbar Cannery in Louisiana. The caption tells us that Mary shucks two pots of oysters a day and tends to her mothers sick child part of the day, while Mary shucks oysters her mother works with her sick baby in her arms. The caption also tells us that Mary’s mother is the fastest shucker in the cannery and makes $1.50 a day. It was probably because she was the best worker in the factory that the owner allowed her daughter to work part time and care for the baby, most factory owners did their best to please the better workers because in the south if a worker felt mistreated they could easily quit and find a job at another local cannery. (Bellande, Schmidt.)

Children working in the Dunbar Cannery in Louisiana and others like it all along the Gulf Coast started their working lives very young. Lewis Hine’s photograph “Eight Year Old Lizzie Earns 30 A Day” is a clear representation of children working in the seafood industry in the south. Hine says in the pictures caption that he watched the eight year old work at full speed all day long and that she could not speak English. Many of the children around Lizzie’s age would go to the factories early in the morning and then leave to go to school and return after their classes to finish the day working in the factory. At fourteen children would receive a work card that made it legal for them to work in the factories, much like a modern work permit. Often children under the legal working age were forced to leave the factory if they were discovered by an investigator, for this reason many children hid whenever an investigator visited the cannery.  (Bellande, Schmidt.)

Lewis Hine’s photography presents the major problems that were evident in the American industrial economy at the turn of the century. Child labor endangered millions of American children and today threatens millions of children of the third world. People like Lewis Hine brought the dangers of child labor to the attention of mainstream America and helped bring an end to endangering children in the workplace; perhaps someone will do the same for the children in other parts of the world so they too can enjoy their childhood.