Newly Processed Collection: USDA Northwest Cannery Survey Collection, 1914-1915

Post contributed by Rachel Lilley, SCARC Public Services Assistant

MSS Cannery_Eugene plant labels and Outline 9 and 10_Box 1 Folder 7_Page_1

In 1911, the 26th legislative assembly created the office of the Oregon State Immigration Agent, appropriating $20,000 for immigration advertising work, and an additional $5,000 for statistical research and collection work to be done by the Oregon Statistical Bureau (OSB). John Andrew Bexell, Dean of Oregon Agricultural College’s Department of Commerce, was chosen to direct the work of the OSB, and little surprise. In 1913, as part of an effort by the National Department of Agriculture (NDA) to develop a program of “moveable agricultural schools” to “further the scientific education of adults with very little scholastic learning,” the Office of Experiment Stations had tapped Bexell to develop a course on bookkeeping (The Barometer, May 30, 1913). Bexell’s course would include: a series of fifteen to twenty-five lectures, with accompanying readings and questions; a set of practicums or exercises; a complete list of equipment, materials, and published reference works needed to “properly present the subject;” and a list of pedagogical methods that would serve as suggestions for the teacher of the course.

Under Bexell’s direction, the initial mandate of the Oregon Statistical Bureau was the completion of a general survey of statewide agricultural operations in order to “determine the opportunities in each locality for new settlers and, if possible, to find some of the difficulties in agricultural development.” Though the OSB was not funded to continue its work after completing the survey, the resulting publication, The Oregon Farmer: What He has Accomplished in Every Part of the State, not only set a precedent for subsequent agricultural surveys, but provided the groundwork for the standardization of cannery operations in the state.

Each survey in the USDA Northwest Cannery Survey Collection (MSS Cannery) is comprised of between one and fourteen “outlines,” or reports, and each outline presents the same information for each cannery. Some of the more significant are Outline 1, and Outlines 9 and 10, which deal with cannery and association history, and each cannery’s labor force, respectively. Outline 1 typically includes information about the establishment of the growers’ association and a list of its founders; a cannery plant floorplan, and inventory of machinery; and lists of the types of product canned per season, how much product was canned, and the cost per can. Of special significance, however, are Outlines 9 and 10. These two outlines, often presented together as one report, not only document the use of female labor in canneries, but illustrate just how heavily canneries relied on female workers, and the types of work women did.

MSS Cannery_Corvallis plant Outline 3, plant map and procedures_Box 1 Folder 4_Page_1

A typical cannery season lasted a little over four months. On average, the surveyed canneries employed between thirteen and forty-eight women, with most hiring more women during the peak of the season. The Eugene cannery, for example, hired on as many as a hundred additional female workers during the height of the season. Female cannery workers filled positions preparing fruit (e.g. washing, hulling, or stemming), canning fruit, or labelling cans (a task often reserved for a small cadre of hired “girls”). Almost every plant that took part in the survey also lists among its staff a “Forewoman” or “Forelady,” who was tasked with managing the day-to-day work of female employees. Most Forewomen were paid a daily rate between $1.25 and $2.00. Notably, the “Forelady” at the Corvallis plant was paid $75 a month for her seasonal work (June 1 to November 1), the same as the Warehouseman and Receiving Clerk, and five dollars more than the Fireman.

Most women, however, could expect to be paid, on average, between ten and fifteen cents per hour. Three canneries – Eugene, Forest Grove, and Woodburn – specifically mention paying by the piece, in addition to hourly rates.

MSS Cannery_Forest Grove plant labor_Box 2 Folder 2

At the Forest Grove plant, hulling strawberries paid fifteen to twenty-five cents for each twenty-five-pound crate; canning strawberries paid one and a half cents per nineteen-can tray. Stemming cherries paid twelve to twelve and a half cents for each finished forty-five-pound box; canning cherries, however, only paid one cent per twelve-can tray. With the addition of piece rates, the Forest Grove cannery was the one surveyed location at which women could, theoretically, earn as much as men per hour (men were not offered per piece rates at the Forest Grove plant).

MSS Cannery_Forest Grove plant labor_Box 2 Folder 1

In contrast, the surveyed canneries hired, on average, between nine and fifteen men during the season, not including those hired for managerial or administrative positions. Men filled the managerial and administrative posts in cannery plants, working as plant Managers, Bookkeepers, Receiving Clerks, and “Processors.” These posts were typically salaried, and paid on a weekly or monthly basis; the full time Eugene plant manager was paid $166 per month for a year-round (the average was closer to $65 per month, or $2.50 per day). Men were also hired on as Engineers, Machinists, Firemen, and Warehousemen, and worked the can-capping machine, the conveyor belts, and the boilers. Men who worked these blue collar positions were paid hourly rates between twenty and twenty-five cents per hour; younger “boys,” who were sometimes hired as runners or helpers, were hired at an average rate of twelve cents an hour.

MSS Cannery_Eugene plant labels and Outline 9 and 10_Box 1 Folder 7_Page_3

Historically speaking, the division of labor likely made quite a bit of sense to contemporary plant managers. Women would have been the primary canners in most family units and therefore would have been the logical choice for preparing and canning produce. The fact that women could be hired at half the rate of pay as men would have further contributed to their desirability as employees. Yet, both the men hired as Engineers and Machinists, and the women hired as Preparers and Canners, were completing skilled tasks. The work would have been physically rigorous, and though none of the canneries reported the number of hours worked per day, the days would have likely been long, as a federally-mandated eight-hour work day was still several decades from being standard (the Fair Labor Standards Act wasn’t signed into law until 1937). Though not reflected in their pay, the intricate, skilled, and often physical work of women in canneries was as valuable as that of men.

Occasionally, surveys are accompanied by correspondence containing suggestions on operational efficiency and modernization from Certified Public Accountant, and survey Man-in-the-Field, J. W. Boies. For example, to the Benton County Growers’ Association in Corvallis, Boies suggested implementation of “simple, labor saving methods under a practical, but concise, cost system,” including the purchase of a “modern Cash Book, columnized Sales Book, [and] a modern Labor Saving method of distributing payroll.” All such prescriptive correspondence was also copied to the survey’s Auditing Committee, of which J. A. Bexell was also a member. It could be argued that these efforts toward the “modernization” and standardization of cannery operations would later allow the relief canneries operated during the Great Depression to operate more efficiently, thus better serving economically suffering families. Relief canneries distilled full-scale cannery operations down to their essence – boiler, capper, processers – and both the division of labor and ratio of labor that had worked best at the cannery plant is evidenced also at the relief canneries.

The USDA Northwest Cannery Survey Collection would support wide a range of research topics, including the marketing of Oregon agricultural products, history of women and labor, and Oregon industry, and would be complimented by a number of additional collections. The Experiment Station Communications Films and Horticulture Department Photographs contain images that document machinery and methods used in canning produce (e.g. strawberry capper-stemmers and field harvesters). Of special note are the images of soldiers acting as additional labor in canneries in both the Extension Bulletin Illustrations Photograph Collection and the Extension and Experiment Station Communications Photograph Collection. The Extension and Experiment Station Communications Photograph Collections also documents the use of Mexican migrant farm labor.  The Food Science and Technology Department Photographs additionally document relief cannery work done during the Great Depression.

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