1911: The knife-wielding child workers of Maine's sardine canneries

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon

In 1908, New York sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee to document the exploitation and working conditions of underage laborers around the United States.

Hine crisscrossed the country, skirting around watchful employers to photograph and interview thousands of children in different industries and settings, from rural miners to urban bike messengers and newsies.

His travels brought him all the way to Eastport, Maine — the easternmost city in the country, and the birthplace of the American sardine industry.

There, he documented the youngsters who worked in the dozens of canneries and factories which lined the waterfront. Many were employed as "cutters," tasked with chopping the heads and tails off the freshly caught fish and passing them on to be canned, packed and shipped.

Working long shifts with sharp knives in cramped, slippery quarters, and incentivized to prepare as many sardines as quickly as possible, the children Hine spoke to frequently suffered painful cuts.

Hine's sympathetic photographs became the popular face of the movement to end child labor, and helped set the stage for New Deal legislation that would enact lasting reform.

The American sardine industry went into decline after the 1950s, as regulations were enacted to curb overfishing and the oily fish became less popular than more mild canned tuna.

The last major sardine cannery in the US closed in 2010.

Go back to 1911 in the photos below:

24 PHOTOS
Child labor 1911 sardine canneries
See Gallery
Child labor 1911 sardine canneries

"Minnie Thomas, 9 years old, showing average size of sardine knife used in cutting. Some of the children used a knife as large as this. Minnie works regularly in Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #7, mostly in the packing room, and when very busy works nights. Cuts some, also cartons. She says she earns $2.00 some days, packing."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Sardine canneries on the waterfront in Eastport, Maine.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"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."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"Richard Mills, eight years old, showing a severely cut finger."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"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.'"

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"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."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"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."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"George Goodell, and butcher knife used by many children."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"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."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"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."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"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."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"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."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"Wilfred Clark, 10 years old, going home at noon, after cutting five boxes of fish during the morning. Incidentally, he cuts his fingers. See left forefinger. Two other boys with him had fingers badly cut and healed up."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"Shows the way they cut the fish in sardine canneries. Large, sharp knives are used, with a cutting and sometimes a chopping motion. The slippery floors and benches, and careless bumping into each other increase the liability to accident. 'The salt gits in the cuts an' they ache.'"

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"A group of young cartoners in Seacoast Canneries, #4., not the youngest."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"Phoebe Thomas, 8 year old Syrian girl, running home from the factory all alone, her hand and arm bathed with blood, crying at the top of her voice. She had cut the end of her thumb nearly off, cutting sardines in the factory, and was sent home alone, her mother being busy. The loss of blood was considerable, and might have been serious."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"Phoebe's thumb, a week after the accident. She was back at the factory that day, using the same big knife."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"Butcher knife used by Ralph, a young cutter in a canning company and a badly cut finger. Several children working with him had cut fingers, and even the adults said they could not help cutting themselves."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"Minnie Thomas, a 9 year old girl, works regularly in Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #7, mostly in the packing room, and when very busy works nights. Cuts some, and also cartons. Her mother said, 'Some of the children cut their fingers half off.' Her father and grandfather are in the factory. She lives in Grand Manan in the winter with her aunt, father and mother live here. She says she earns $2.00 some days packing, not so much when she cartons. 'Only made $1.70 all last week.'"

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"Three young cutters who work in Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #4. Ages 10 to 12. Work regularly."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"'I cut my finger nearly off, cutting sardines the other day.' Seven year old Byron."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

"Byron's cut finger."

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners