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

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

In 1908, photographer Lewis Hine was hired by the American Child Protection Council to report and document the working conditions and exploitation of children (or as they were called: underage laborers) across the United States.

He traveled around the country, interviewing thousands of children in working settings and documenting the harsh reality through photographs such as the bike messengers, newsies, miners, etc.

Hine traveled to Eastport, the birthplace of the American sardine industry, where a lot of children were still working in the sardine business. The result is a lurid series of pictures.

sardine canneries child workers

Sardine canneries on the waterfront in Eastport, Maine.

Eastport is a small town in the state of Maine, consisting of a small group of islands. Numerous children used to work there in the sardine factories as a cheap workforce.

One day of sardine filleting would earn them $1,50. 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.

Work inside the factories was very demanding. Speed was required as was care not to pack part of a finger with the sardines, inconsistent goals at best.

Hours were long and lasted until there were no more fish to pack. There was very little automation in the factories so each can of sardines was handled several times by workers before being finally shipped to market.

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 images provided an accurate depiction of the heavy conditions for the children, with their sad, blank faces and wounded hands.

Ultimately, the American Child Protection council used these images as evidence to successfully forge a new law prohibiting children to work in factories.

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

In 1833 Eastport was the second-largest trading port in the country after New York City. Farms produced hay and potatoes. Industries included a grain mill, box factory, and carding mill.

But the island’s economy was primarily directed at the sea. With tides of about 25 feet (7.6 m), Eastport’s spacious harbor remained ice-free year-round.

The first sardine factory was built here about 1875. The population grew with the emergence of the sardine fishery and related canning businesses, which studded the shoreline by the end of the 19th century.

By 1886, the town contained 13 sardine factories, which operated day and night during the season, and produced approximately 5,000 cases per week.

About 800 men, women, and children worked in the plants. Eastport would be incorporated as a city on March 18, 1893. But the fishing industry would decline, and many people moved away. Indeed, the city went bankrupt in 1937.

sardine canneries child workers

“Some of the cartoners, not the youngest, at Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2.”

sardine canneries child workers

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

sardine canneries child workers

“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.’”

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

sardine canneries child workers

“George Goodell, and butcher knife used by many children.”

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

sardine canneries child workers

“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.’”

sardine canneries child workers

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

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

sardine canneries child workers

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

sardine canneries child workers

“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.”

sardine canneries child workers

“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.’”

sardine canneries child workers

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

sardine canneries child workers

“‘I cut my finger nearly off, cutting sardines the other day.’ Seven year old Byron.”

sardine canneries child workers

“Byron’s cut finger.”

(Photo credit: Lewis Hine / Library of Congress).