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Maryland Packers: 1909

Maryland Packers: 1909

July 1909. "Some of the workers in a Maryland packing company." Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine. View full size.


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>> I can't help but wonder: "Why are some of these children smiling?

Maybe they're smiling because they have jobs and will eat supper tonight!

It is through the prism of modern day society that we are appalled by the notion of child workers; but over the long history of man this has been normal. The way that we raise our children now is abnormal when compared against the history of mankind. (I'm not suggesting it was better back then ... just that this was normal.)

America was, for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, an agrarian nation - and our workforce consisted of the children our women bore. They were put to work as soon as they could lift a grain bucket to feed the chickens.

What's striking to me about the photo is how healthy these children look compared to the obesity so common in our children today.

The Baltimore Biloxi Connection..

Before the migrant crop workers, there were European immigrants who followed work all along the Eastern seacoast in the early 1900s. Several families from the Seafood factories in Baltimore eventually settled in Biloxi, Mississippi - working for the dozen or so factories in what was then "the seafood capital of America". Most were Slovian - from Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia - their once strong presence on Biloxi’s Point Cadet is still marked by the names of streets, businesses, and the Slovonian Society Social Club.

Seeing this picture reminds me of the stories my mother told, and particularly about my Aunt Beulah working as a child in the factory.

The factories lined Biloxi’s Back Bay where the schooners docked to unload their catches. Workers lived near the factor. Some were fortunate to find low cost housing in factory owned “camps” – Dirt floor shacks often housing multiple families – with a community privy out back. Each factory had its own distinctive whistle - blown before the crack of dawn to summon its workers to “come to work”. Beulah was about 9 years old - the oldest of 5 children. Being as her father was (in her words) “…a useless, good for nothing, wife-abusing drunk…” Beulah and her mother worked the factories making just enough to keep the family fed.

Beulah worked on the shucking floor. Each worker had a place at a bench – that was actually part of a shelf along the wall. The room was built on a pier with openings in the floor to let the seafood juices and trash fall into the bay below. In the cold winter months the chilly winds blew up through the cracks in the floor making an already miserable job tortuous.

Steel tracks on the floor led to the steaming area. Every so often a huge basket-like trolley rolled into the room brimming with steamed open oysters. The young workers collected them using sacks or their aprons, and carried them to their work bench. Then the long process of prying open the shells, saving the meat in the can, and throwing the shells out of the wide open windows onto the pile outside.

When the cups were full - sometime it could take an hour or more, depending on the size of the oysters and how well steamed they were - the worker took their cup to the much despised "checker". The checker - usually an older woman – who job was to make sure the cup was full of oysters as possible and very little liquid. If she felt there was too much liquid, she would press and drain the contents, and hand the cup back to the worker to "finish filling it".

The hours were long. The conditions were poor and unsanitary with the oyster juice running down bare arms and legs. But it paid - FIVE CENTS A CUP !!

So when I see pictures like this one, I can't help but wonder: "Why are some of these children smiling?"

People say we're going through hard times today. But pictures like this one tell a story of much darker and harder times. We have much to be thankful for.

The Golf links lie so near the mill...

I am reminded of Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn's short but powerful poem:

The golf links lie so near the mill
that almost every day,
The laboring children can look out
and see the men at play.

When I taught english literature to grade nine students, this was always my first lesson, after which we would take turns looking out the classroom window and commenting on how the world looked from the inside. (Then I'd make them get to work. The irony was not lost on them.... heh heh)

Ansel Adams had the Zone System... I'm working on the points system. First I points it here, and then I points it there...

Science fiction

You couldn't get any kids that age to do any work these days, so I figure that lady in the very back, the one laughing, she must have been the one that carried the whip.

Bean plant revisited?

Was this photo was taken on the same day, at the same factory as the Bean Stringers that was posted on April 14? Notice the girl in the striped dress who has shoes, fourth from the right, in the first row. She seems to be the same little girl in the front right of that photo. Same striped dress, only she has an apron over it in this shot. And the little boy holding up the pail, could he be the same kid half hiding behind the post in that photo? What a rascal he must've been.

[It could be. The original caption information for this image is missing. - Dave]

Day care

Yes, many of these children are very young but Mama had two choices since she needed to work: bring them with her or leave them home alone. I am neither condoning nor accusing but facing the reality of the times.

What were they packing?

Normally I can look at Hine's photos and see distinct points of view. Life was different back then, and children worked to support their families or themselves. But this photo is haunting because of just how young the subjects are, and how many of them there are. Also probably because I have family in Baltimore, and can imagine a grandparent or grand-aunt or uncle in their midst. A potential personal connection always hits harder.

What did they use the baby for

A doorstop? A paperweight? Thank God for child labor laws. No child should have the eyes of an old, disillusioned adult!!

Future planning

Interesting how most of the girls' dresses either have tucks or large hems to allow for growth. Also interesting is that the baby has shoes, even though (s)he may not be walking yet, while most of the children in front do not. Guess they were left over from older sibs and might as well be used.

Thank God for child labor

Thank God for child labor laws. It's ridiculous when the sweet-faced girl with her hair up on the right looks like everyone's mom or teacher, and she's probably only twelve or thirteen...

There's a ringer in the photo

Aw, c'mon. You can't tell me the baby in brother's arms on the left does any work at this factory.

Second grade class photo

This would be appropriate for an elementary school class picture. Hardly anyone seems to be older than nine. I am glad that things have changed for the better.

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