Alabama: Oyster Industry

Child Labor in the American South: Alabama Oyster Industry

Michelle Chagnon

“Near the dock is the ever present shell pile, a monument to the patient work of little fingers.” – Lewis Hine, quoted in Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor by Russell Freedman.

 The "little fingers" that Hine is referring to belong to young children, robbed of their playtime to toil away in mills and factories for long hours at time. Estimates of up to two million children were put to work in 1900, children of all ages and in all areas of work. This selection of photographs details the work of children in oyster canneries, specifically the Alabama Canning Company in Bayou La Batre, Alabama in 1911. According to Russell Freedman, Hine found that the children who worked in the canneries tended to be much younger than those that worked in mills and factories (Freedman, 38).

The work day started very early in the morning, around 3 or 4 a.m. and would not end until the day's supply of oysters was shucked and processed, which could take until late afternoon, 4 or 5 p.m. "Children were paid by the pot, not the hour," (Greene, 52) and therefore would work very hard to earn their pay and supplement the family income. Children were considered "industrial assets" and thus, in many states, were looked at as nothing but that. They were expected to work up to sixty-six hours a week, eleven-hour days with few or no breaks, exhausting themselves in the process. However, options were limited, and they did not have much other choice.

There was such limited choice in children's lives because of the economy of the time. Immigrants coming to America in search of jobs took any job they could get, and would have to have their children work, too. Children, though paid less, still helped the family income. "Family labor was an accepted social form and child labor was seen as intrinsically linked to family autonomy,"(Sallee, 39). Children, earning wages, were able to "put food on the table,"(Sallee, 39) and therefore were seen as very important contributors to the welfare of the family. The idea of the "welfare" of the family changed in later years to focus on the welfare of the child, resulting in reform movements to limit children's work, and then later to eradicate it.

Early efforts at reforming child labor in Alabama in the 1880's proved unsuccessful. In 1886 and 1887, legislators from Mobile got together to introduce a legislation that prohibited both women and children under eighteen from working more than eight hours a day and banned child labor under fourteen years of age. Unfortunately this was repealed in 1894. The National Child Labor Committee and the Alabama Child Labor Committee worked together to push for reform in many ways. One way was so advocate for children's education as a way to pull them out of "compulsory ignorance." Also, racial concerns stepped in to further the push of reform. It was thought that education for the children would raise them to be better citizens, and it would lead to better "control" of whites, so they would be less likely to be violent to blacks.

The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) had been founded in 1904, to investigate child labor around the nation. Lewis Hine began taking his famous photographs of working children to raise awareness of the problem. A law passed in 1903 made the working age limit twelve years of age for children, with exception, and no child under ten being allowed to work. No children under thirteen could work at night, and no child could work more than sixty six hours a week. Subsequent laws were able to obtain better conditions- such as a no exceptions policy on children under twelve working. This of course, did not get enforced the way it should have been.

The ACLC (Alabama Child Labor Committee) was founded by Edgar Gardner Murphy to look more closely at the problem of child labor (Sallee, 67). He was able to distribute large amounts of reform pamphlets to spread the word and the concern, and targeted organized women's groups to help his campaign for children's rights. An all female ACLC was formed, and they thought that since they were women (and therefore many times mothers) they knew the lives of children and had a greater sense of what children needed.  Women's groups, made of mainly middle-class ladies, led the way for child labor reform and pursued better child welfare laws (Sallee, 8). The Alabama Child Welfare Department was then founded in 1919, and Alabama reformers were able to win a strengthened compulsory educations law and a stronger child labor law (Sallee, 135). This included absolutely no employment to kids under fourteen, except in agricultural work and domestic work, and children under sixteen could not be permitted to work more than 48 hours per week, no more then 8 hours per day. And, in 1921, they were able to pass a law requiring children to go to school and get at least a fourth grade education in order to be considered for employment later on.

Child labor was such a problem because it "inflicted ‘mental, physical, and moral ruin'" (Sallee, 45) on the youth of America. But, employers argued that "children provided the bonus of elasticity and adaptability" and "could be fired and hired as needed" depending on the work and season (Sallee, 11). The unfortunate children who were subjected to the ills of society by being forced to work at early ages were treated as if childhood was not a time to learn to read and write and have fun, but rather to learn how to be a little adult, with adult responsibilities and adult labor, but with less than an adult's pay. Fortunately, reformers and organizations popped up in the early 1900's to try to thwart the child labor industry and give back to children some semblance of a childhood. Whether this childhood meant going to school and working at home, or at the very least getting some education and not having to work 12 hours a day, it was still an immense improvement over the conditions that children were subjected to in factories, in canneries, in mines, etc. The work of child labor reformers in Alabama was able to help Alabama children to stop the torturous system of labor that had befallen them.

Fred, a young oyster fisher

"Fred, a young oyster fisher, working on an oyster boat in Mobile Bay, the Reef, near Bayou La Batre, said he was fourteen- but not likely."

In many places, fourteen was the age at which children could legally be put to work. (This is much more true on paper than it was in effect.) Some lied to gain access to the work force, some did not have to lie, because employers did not care enough to ask, and would just put them to work. There were times when factory or cannery inspectors would come by and the younger kids would have to hide in order not to be thrown out. Hine does say, in the caption to another oyster boat photograph, that, "A few, but not many of these youngsters are found on the oyster boats." More children would be given the menial task of shucking, while the boating was more of a man's job, but still, little boys manned boats day in and day out.

Shucking oysters in the Alabama Canning Company 

"Shucking oysters in the Alabama Canning Company (Dunbar, Lopez, Dukate Co.) Small boy on left is Mike Murphy, ten years old, and from Baltimore."

Many children came to the factories with their families, and worked along side their parents. Immigrants, coming to the United States in hopes of finding work and income, were shipped down to the South to work in the canneries. Most were promised housing and healthy conditions, but as the photographs show, conditions were less then desirable. Large groups of people were crowded into filthy shacks, with no running water and sometimes infested by rats and bugs (Freedman, 40). Many Southern employers did not accept much responsibility for the living conditions of their labor force (Cobb, 71). Mike's family came from Baltimore, and was probably shipped down to Alabama for the canning season. He is too short to reach the bins of oysters and has to stand atop the shells to dig his hands into the boatloads of oysters he has to shuck for the day. A daunting task to be sure, especially when you are paid by the pot and your family counts as much on your income as they do on the earnings of the mother and father.

On the right end is Marie--- eight years old

"On the right-hand end is Marie- eight years old, who shucks 6 or 7 pots of oysters a day (30 or 35 cents) at a canning company. At left end of photo is Johnnie- eight years old, who earns 40 cents a day. Been shucking for three years."

An eight year old who had been shucking for three years, which means he was five when he started! Five! His tiny fingers were prying at oyster shells when they should have been learning to write, or playing ball. But, learning to read and write was most likely out of the question for Johnnie, and many others. Those children who were able to attend school, probably only did so three months out of the year, working the rest of the time. "School age children left their city homes before summer vacation started and returned long after fall term had started. They lagged far behind in studies, if they went at all,"(Freedman, 40) Education was a rare thing for them, and most immigrant children never even learned English because they were made to work their days away. It wasn't just immigrant children that did not get an adequate education- many children all over the south was unable to read or write, and some did not even know their own age (Sallee, 45).

Little Lottie, a regular oyster shucker 

"Little Lottie, a regular oyster shucker in Alabama Canning Co. She speaks no English. Note the condition of her shoes, caused by standing on the rough shells so much,- a common sight."

Children worked along side the adults, picking out oyster shells, prying them open with knives, and putting the meat into pots or pails. The oyster shells were rough and sharp, and would often cut and irritate little hands, not to mention little feet. The caption for Little Lottie, standing on the oyster shells, says: "Note the condition of her shoes..." Her shoes are all battered from the shells, no doubt hurting her feet. What about those kids who did not have shoes? Or those that did not have little pieces of fabric to cushion their hands from the knives and tools they used? Children would go home with bleeding, swollen, sore hands from working with the oysters all day, and would have to come back the next day, and the next day, and so on, to continue to wear their tiny bodies out prematurely. Other children surround Lottie; in fact, the only adult in the picture is the man in the back. Hine says that her condition (and that of her shoes) is a common sight in these canneries.

Millie(about seven yrs. old) and Mary John

"Millie (about seven yrs. old) and Mary John (with the baby) eight years old. Both shuck oysters at the Alabama Canning Co. This is Mary's second year. She said, "I shucks six pots if I don't got the baby, two pots if I got him." (Many of the little ones, too young to work all the time, tend the baby when not working.)"

Even babies and toddlers were not spared from the cannery conditions. Babies were bundled up and brought with the family, either put in carriages and left by warm stoves to keep them warm, or attended to by older siblings. (And ‘older' here does not mean thirteen or fourteen, it means maybe a six or seven year old was tending the baby.) In the picture, Mary says, "I shucks six pots if I don't got the baby, two pots if I got him." So, not only did the unfortunate children have to work, but also they had to multitask, juggling what we consider "adult" responsibilities. Toddlers in the canneries would roam around, playing in the shells, imitating the workers, and inevitably learning the trade. When they were "big enough to handle a knife, they were ‘allowed to help,'" (Freedman, 43). "Allowed to help" or forced to help?

 The quote at the top of the page is pulled from this full quote by Lewis Hine:

 “Come with me to one of these canneries at 3 o’clock in the morning. Here is the crude, shed-like building with a long dock at which the oyster boats unload their cargo. Near the dock is the ever-present shell pile, a monument to the patient work of little fingers. It is cold, damp, dark. The whistle blew some time ago, and the young workers slipped into meager garments, snatched a bite to eat, and hurried to the shucking shed… Boys and girls, six, seven, and eight years old, take their places with the adults and work all day,” (Freedman, 40).

The imagery he depicts here really hits home, so to speak, and pulls together the idea that children really did need people working in their favor in the early 1900's in order to live better lives.