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HomeHistoryThese heartbreaking photos show the child workers of Maine's sardine canneries, 1911

These heartbreaking photos show the child workers of Maine’s sardine canneries, 1911

The American Child Protection Council hired photographer Lewis Hine in 1908 to report on and document the working conditions and exploitation of kids (or “underage laborers”) across the United States.

He traveled around the country, interviewing thousands of children in working environments and photographing the brutal reality of life for bike messengers, newsies, miners, and other workers.

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Hine visited Eastport, the origin of the American sardine industry, where many children were still employed in the industry. The result is a lurid series of pictures.

Sardine canneries on the waterfront in Eastport, Maine.

Eastport is a small town in Maine that is made up of several small islands. As a cheap workforce, many youngsters used to work in the sardine factories.

They would make $1,50 for a day of sardine filleting. Many worked as “cutters,” chopping the heads and tails off freshly caught fish and delivering them to be canned, packed, and shipped.

The factory work was physically tough. Speed was required, as was caution to avoid packing part of a finger with sardines, which resulted in inconsistent goals at best.

The hours flew by until there were no more fish to pack. Because the factory had very little automation, each can of sardines was handled numerous times by workers before being shipped to market.

The children Hine spoke to routinely experienced painful wounds while working lengthy hours with sharp knives in cramped, slippery quarters, and were incentivized to prepare as many sardines as soon as possible.

With their sad, blank faces and wounded hands, Hine’s photos accurately depicted the children’s difficult circumstances.

The American Child Protection Council eventually used these photographs as proof to pass a new law forbidding children from working in industries.

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“Fulsom McCutcheon, 11 years old, has been working at the covering machines in Eastport canning factory, also cutting some. In the background is a typical sardine factory.”

After New York City, Eastport was the country’s second-largest trading port in 1833. Farms produced hay and potatoes. A grain mill, a box factory, and a carding mill were among the businesses.

However, the island’s economy was mostly based on the sea. Eastport’s large harbor remained ice-free all year because to tides of roughly 25 feet (7.6 m).

Around 1875, the first sardine factory was established here. The growth of the sardine fishery and accompanying canning companies, which dotted the shoreline by the end of the 19th century, increased the population.

By 1886, the town had 13 sardine factories that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week during the season and produced about 5,000 cases per week.

The plants employed about 800 men, women, and children. Eastport would be incorporated as a city on March 18, 1893. However, the fishing sector began to collapse, and many people relocated. In fact, the city declared bankruptcy in 1937.

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“Some of the cartoners, not the youngest, at Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2.”
“Richard Mills, eight years old, showing a severely cut finger.”
“Elsie Shaw, a 6-year-old cartoner in the summer, Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2. Her father is boss of cutting room in Factory #1. He asked me to take some photos of her, as he has her do a singing act in vaudeville in the winter, ‘and she’s old enough now to go through the audience and sell her own photos.’”
“Nan de Gallant, 9-year-old cartoner, Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2. Packs some with her mother. Mother and two sisters work in factory. One sister has made $7 in one day. During the rush season, the women begin work at 7 a.m., and at times work until midnight. Brother works on boats. … Work is very irregular. Nan is already a spoiled child.”
“5 year old Preston, a young cartoner. I saw him at work different times during the day – at 7 a.m., in the afternoon and at 6 p.m., and he kept at it very faithfully for so young a worker.”
“George Goodell, and butcher knife used by many children.”
“Three cutters in Factory #7, Seacoast Canning Co., Eastport, Me. They work regularly whenever there are fish. (Note the knives they use.) Back of them and under foot is refuse. On the right hand is Grayson Forsythe, 7 years old. Middle is George Goodell, 9 years old, finger badly cut and wrapped up. Said, ‘the salt gets into the cut.’ Said he makes $1.50 some days. Left end, Clarence Goodell, 6 years, helps brother.”
“Interior of a cutting shed in Maine. Young cutters at work, Clarence, 8 years, and Minnie, 9 years. Photo does not show the salt water in which they often stand, nor the refuse they handle. On the low shelf are two of the ‘boxes’ used as measures, and for which they get 5 cents a box.”
“Housing conditions in settlement at Seacoast Cannery #7, not very good. This is the home of the Goodell family. They live here all the year in these temporary quarters. The father works in the mill nearby. Four or five of the children are in the canneries.”
“Group of young cutters, Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2, waiting for more fish. They all work, but they waste a great deal of time as the adults do also, waiting for fish to arrive.”
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