- 1850-1930 -
Who worked in the cannery?
 

King_CA_Room.DiFiore_Cherry_Packers_1904.jpg     The fruit industry employed many Californians.  Some were executives, some managers, but most worked in fields or on the cannery floor. Most of the work required little training or education, so almost anyone could get a job in orchard, cannery or fruit-drying plant.  The canneries provided thousands of jobs for people looking for summer work or a seasonal job.  Even today many Californians can relate to the fruit industry in some way because they had a relative that worked somewhere in a cannery, orchard, or one of the other companies that supplied canneries.  While researching this project, many Californians have shared with me their or a family member’s experiences in the canneries.    

     While the industry provided many jobs, in its early decades companies and growers sometimes exploited workers by trying to get as much labor for as little pay as possible.  Until laws existed requiring hourly pay, canners paid some workers by how many baskets of fruit they prepared.  That means they had very short breaks, if any.           

     Working conditions were very difficult.  During the pack, the canneries were busy, noisy, hot, and messy.  Workers spent twelve-hour days on their feet doing repetitive tasks.  The canners wanted to process as much fruit as possible so they pushed as much as they could as fast as possible through processing.  Some interviews of workers explain that the work went so fast that they did not even have bathroom breaks.    

      The pack began in late spring and went through late summer as the harvest came in.  The rest of the year, the canneries needed only a fraction of the workers.  This worked out for some workers as they used the cannery money as additional income.  Other workers were dependent on cannery and fruit industry wages as their primary income because jobs were scarce, and they moved around looking for work because the agricultural work they could find was seasonal.

Gender Divide.png     Gender divisions were common within canneries and packinghouses.  It took a large number people to prepare the fruit for canning, and women and older girls often held these jobs.  Cannery women cleaned, sorted, peeled, and cut the fruit to specification.  Then, they filled cans or jars with the fruit.  Next, the cans went off for syrup, sealed, and cooked in a retort.  Men held most supervisory jobs, but women could become line managers or quality testers.  Very few women made it to the executive level.  In most cases, women who worked in the offices were secretaries.  It was not until the 1970s that women began to move into management and other executive positions.

     Men were laborers or managers.  Laborers moved carts around the cannery, ran machines, or worked in the warehouse.  As companies increased in size, they also increased their managerial staff.  Managers worked in many parts of the industry from the fields to the factory to company headquarters. 

     Children worked in canneries until strong labor laws regulated the child labor.  When children worked in the fruit canneries, they often prepared fruit and ran errands.  Progressive activists in the 19th and early 20th century did not think that young children should work in factories because it was dangerous and interfered with their ability to get an education.  However, some historians argue that parents who sent their kids into the factories were probably working in the factories also if possible, and they needed the money to survive.  Even though canneries hired children, some historians explain that they preferred their employees to be a bit older, at least fourteen because younger children just did not work as well or produce as much as older children and adults.

     To hear first hand stories about working in canneries, you can visit the University of California - Berkeley Oral History Center.  Some relevant interviews are by  Marguerite Clausen, who was a resident of Richmond, California and worked in the local Filice and Perrelli cannery, which was owned by Joseph Perrelli's family.

     

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 Sources

Labor Conditions in the Canning Industry. Sacramento, CA: Bureau of Labor Statistics, State of California, 1913.

Brown, Martin, Jens Christiansen, and Peter Philips. "The Decline of Child Labor in the U.S. Fruit and Vegetable Canning Industry: Law or Economics?" The Business History Review 66, no. 4 (1992 Winter 1992): 723-70.

Vicki L. Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives (Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987).Vicki L. Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives (Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987).

Zavalla, Justo P. The Canning of Fruits and Vegetables, Based on the Methods in Use in California, with Notes on the Control of the Microorganisms Effecting Spoilage. 1st ed ed. New York: John Wiley & sons, inc.; [etc., etc.], 1916.