Mississippi: Cannery Workers


Child Labor in the New South: Mississippi: Cannery Workers


Wang Lee


With the emergence of industries and factories, the new age of economy pushed into Mississippi in the 1840s to the 1930s.  Mississippi was the state that became an enormous industry to seafood because of their easy access to the Gulf of Mexico and the abundant amount of seafood in the gulf.  Biloxi, Mississippi became a large industrial city in Mississippi with emergence of several Canning Companies that made business in Biloxi.  The Gorenflo Canning Company and Barataria Canning Company, two major companies that made Biloxi, MI a central part of the seafood industry especially for shrimp and oysters.  They made with new ways to ship their products and reaching larger markets for people to buy.

A Cannery is a place where food products such as meat, fish, etc., are canned.  The canneries became an important part of the industry because of the railroads connections made into Mississippi.  It made possible for massive seafood to be sold and moved.  The food was to be stored and packed, so it was ready to eat and also eaten a long after it was packed.  The railroads made the mode of transporting the products into a larger market possible. They railroaded lots of seafood into other states and locally. Because of the demand of the industry, the owners of the companies demanded a large workforce.  “The first workers in the factories were the migrant Bohemians from Baltimore whom Dukate had seen in that city.” (MHN)   Here in the picture of the Grenflo Canning Company taken at 7A.M. (Fig.1), you can see lots of early workers, working to can the seafood.  Here you can see lots of children working varying in different ages.  Because of the growth in the industry and the lack of man power the companies used children to work in the canneries.  It became workforce for the whole family.  You can see a lot of children and women more than the men.  Canning foods were easier to children and women who have smaller hands and it did not require lot of strength.  Also men had other jobs in the cannery. 

“In the early 1880s, Biloxi’s population was approximately 1,500; however, by 1890, it had jumped to about 3,000.” (MHN) The industry grew a lot and the population of the city steadily doubled in 10 years.  The demand for more workers and more jobs demanded more families to work in the canning companies.  Here is a picture of Alma Croslen of Baltimore with her mother. (Fig2) They are seen in front of their house and the mother says, “I’m learning’ her the trade.”, this was the common site of the child workers, who learn to work early in their life.  They had to continue on with their work as early as possible because they were working for their survival.  They lived on fixed income, which wasn’t much, but they needed as much as they can get.  Every person or children working in the canneries were paid, the more they had working from the family the more money they made.  Also she implies the fact, that this was going to be Alma’s life, all after she’s grown up, she will be canning shrimps and oysters.  Here is a picture of Mildred Kron and Gertrude Kron (Fig.3) , standing in front of the clapboard house they live in.  They helped to shuck oysters everyday in the Barataria Canning Company.   Shucking oysters means to remove the shells of the oysters and take out the oyster itself from the shells and clean it. It required lot of hours and man power in order to shuck thousands of pounds of oysters and shrimps. Mildred and Gertrude were three and five years old.  These kinds of work were very hard for them, but they did it everyday because of money and their parents.   Their parents knew that the more children working in the cannery the more money they will get out of it.

The companies built lodges, camps, and clapboard houses for the workers and the families.  They lived in tiny parts of these houses and they had horrible living conditions.  It was not sanitary or clean.  Bill May standing in front of the clapboard house he lives in, he is described as bright and freckled (Fig.4).  You can see that the house does not look sturdy and sound.  It looks like pieces of wood put together to give it form of a house.  The owners built these cheap housings for the migrant workers that moved their whole family to work in the companies.  For what little money they made they lived in their company made houses and made a living here.  This was the common scene of the early 19th century workers in the south.  They were changing their lifestyles from farming or other works they did.  This was a new age of industry and new kinds of work for them.  But because of  the booming economic in industries and not in the agriculture or any other things, they had no choice to work in these factories.

The men were out in the seas on boats, fishing for shrimp and oysters they can catch in a day.  In the Gulf of Mexico, they set sail to capture as much shrimp and oysters they can find.   They were paid in varied wages, but they were paid in the pounds of the shrimps and oysters they caught.  Also depending on the price of the shrimp and oysters that season they would get paid a certain amount.  The workers inside canning and packing were paid by the hour.  That is why some parents made their children work as early as possible and long hours to get more hours as possible.  The workers who shucked and cleaned were paid by the pound of how much they shucked and cleaned for the canneries and packers.  Whoever can shuck and clean more oysters and shrimp got paid more.  This was a fierce competition between workers to make more money.  Here is a picture of the oyster shuckery in the Barataria Canning Company (Fig.5).  You can see little girls and wives cleaning and shucking oysters.  There you can see hundreds of oyster shells lying on the floor.  This was the scene of the oyster shuckers everyday for them to work from morning to night. 

Even after World War I, the industry still flourished and canned and shipped thousands of millions of shrimp and oysters.  Biloxi, MI reports that, “in 1930 Biloxi’s canneries reported that 20,000,000 cans of oysters and shrimp had been packed and 17,000 gallons of raw oysters had been shipped out of the city.” (MHN) This was the flourishing industry in the early 20th Century.  By the turn of the century though, because of World War II every industry suffered.  By 1908, Mississippi law made it illegal for companies to hire children under the age of 12 to work in factories.  This was to protect the children from being deprived of their childhood and education and also for the protection of the children who worked in unsanitary conditions.  Mississippi Cannery Workers were not the only ones in the country in the late 19th century to suffer their children and themselves economically and physically.  Throughout the country, due to the economic booms in industries and factories it made it very tempting for poor workers in agriculture and migrants to just jump in at the chance to make money.  The Mississippi cannery workers were men, women, and lots of children working in dangerous and unsanitary conditions deprived of physical and human needs.


Mississippi History Now (Society)