In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Lubec, Maine

A Border Town Shaped by the Sea

Canning Sardines in Lubec: Technology, the Syndicate and Labor

by Edward L. Hawes

Aerial view looking toward Lubec
Aerial view looking toward Lubec

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Drawn from the collections of the Lubec Historical Society,
the Maine Historical Society and a private collector

Introducing Lubec and the Industry:

For more than one hundred years, sardine canning was one of the two mainstays of the economy of coastal Downeast Maine. From the 1880s to the end of the 20th century, Lubec and Eastport were the twin centers of this fishery industry. The sardines canned there were really little herring, the same fish that provided the basis of the other mainstay fishery industry in the area, smoking herring. They were a natural resource that supplied tasty fast food, the means of employment and the basis of profitable investment. The waterfronts of both towns provided the perfect location for the industry, and a working landscape of canneries, smokehouses, and other businesses on wharves grew up.

Lubec sardine industry, ca. 1950
Lubec sardine industry, ca. 1950

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

The industry began in Eastport in the 1870s, came over to Lubec and grew phenomenally in both places. There were many ups and downs; the last “up” was in the 1950s. In the decade many sardine cans were placed in little boxes with an innovation, a key to open them, instead of a can opener. According to John Gilman, the author of the business history of the canneries, 1952 was the year the key cans were introduced. But the key to the success of the industry, a viable market, was already passing. In 2001 the last canning plant in Lubec closed.

Between 1880 and 2001, the industry provides a microcosm of American history. This album goes from the beginnings of the industry up to 1920. Some of the steps in the process of canning are shown. The effort to form a cartel to control what its organizers thought what might be controlled is explored. Technological innovations allowed the centralization of can production in the first decade of the new century. Women’s work and children’s work in the canneries remained much the same in the period; it was the men’s that changed.

By 1920 there were were additional large canneries on Commercial Street. American Can with its factory on that newer waterfront street had brought change to the canning industry. The Seacoast Canning cartel had long since given up its efforts at monopoly. A new national player had come to town, Booth Fisheries, and now shared that waterfront.

1. Putting Little Herring in Cans

The industry was concentrated in Lubec and Eastport, and remained so right to the end. What inspired New York investors to come there was a well-established and well-known fishery involving harvesting herring for smoking and pickling. They joined with local entrepreneurs who shared the idea of canning small herring they called “sardines” to compete with real sardines from Europe. By 1880 there were five canneries in Eastport, and one in North Lubec.

Fish processing, Eastport, ca. 1902
Fish processing, Eastport, ca. 1902

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Growth was dramatic after these beginnings. In 1886, William Henry Alley, an amateur photographer, took this picture of two canneries at the beginning of Commercial Street in Lubec. He was shooting from the deck of the boat he was sailing with his brother to Prince Edward Island. Both canneries were important operations later in Seacoast Canning Co., as Plants 9 and 8.

Photographs taken in the 1880s by T. W. Smillie of the U. S. National Museum in Washington, D. C. details the process of canning. The first step was to cut off heads and tails, and remove innards. This was done on the wharf or in an open area on the first floor of a cannery, as shown in this photograph in the collections of the Maine Historical Society. Ansley Hall, a fellow investigator, provided a wonderful description of the skilled work: “The cutter takes several fish in the left hand at once and, with a large knife in the right, cuts off the heads one at a time” (p. 475). Smillie shows, and Hall describes the next steps: Washing and pickling, then, laying the herring on “flakes,” wire frames to hold them while cooking for a short time.

Sardine factory, Lubec, 1910
Sardine factory, Lubec, 1910

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

After the herring were cooked for 15 to 30 minutes in a rotary oven with the flakes on moving arms, the flakes were stacked on racks to cool. Then they went to the Packing Room where women and girls placed the herring in cans, generally in a large well-lit area on the second floor. Mustard or oil was added, depending on the size of the herring. Then came the step of sealing the cans in another section of the cannery, “bathing” the sealed cans in boiling water, and finally testing the cans for leaks, all work carried out by men. These steps are described by Hall in his report of 1896 (pp. 476-78) and the 1900 Report of the Maine Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics (pp. 81-82).

Can sealing, Lubec, ca. 1900
Can sealing, Lubec, ca. 1900

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

It is difficult to judge the extent of innovation in the process over the years. In the photo are flakes on work tables, and in back the racks used to wheel them from the oven room, as in Smillie’s time. However, the cans were likely to be the extruded type introduced by American Can a few years before. Yet the work of filling them was the same essentially as at the beginning of the industry, and still was “women’s work.”

Some mechanization in this step is evident from the photograph. It was taken in the sealing room at the cannery nicknamed “The Acre.” However, it is difficult to judge what exactly was going on even using the Zoom feature. Perhaps lids were being pressed onto the filled cans waiting on trays on one side of each worker. Solder would still have to be used to seal the cans. “The Acre” was one of the Lawrence canneries. According to Gilman, the Lawrences were involved in the Standard Sardine Co. in 1898, one of the two predecessors of the Seacoast Packing cartel (pp. 70-72). When the more inclusive cartel was set up the next year, Gilman says, “ the factories went back to the old method of making and sealing cans” all by hand (p. 73).

2. The Syndicate as Change Agent

Seacoast Canning Company, Lubec, ca. 1920
Seacoast Canning Company, Lubec, ca. 1920

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

No photograph has turned up of one of the Seacoast Packing or Seacoast Canning Co. plants specifically identified as such when the syndicate was powerful at the beginning of the century. So far, there is just this one from the Canning Co.’s later period when it was well on the way to being just one among several major producers in Lubec, Eastport and elsewhere in Maine.

In 1900 the situation was very different; Seacoast Packing was the cartel to be part of, at least for a year or so. The author of the report on “The Sardine Industry” in 1900 declared this: “The great object of combining the Sardine industry under the control of one syndicate was to regulate and systematize the whole business, to raise the grade, limit the production and maintain prices” (p. 86). This was a response common in the era to competition, what were seen as high costs of materials and labor, and low profits. Gilman gives the torturous details of the efforts to establish the cartel (p. 66-81). What finally emerged in 1903 was an entity called “Seacoast Canning.” However, it already had serious competition.

Sardine labels, Eastport, 1909
Sardine labels, Eastport, 1909

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

The first efforts in 1898 resulted in two combinations, which over the next year became one, Seacoast Packing, which was reorganized into Seacoast Canning in 1903. It worked this way: Owners of existing canneries in Lubec and Eastport, and elsewhere, would be given shares in the syndicate and cash for granting title and control to Seacoast. Often they would stay on as managers.

Sardine can labels, Lubec, 1909
Sardine can labels, Lubec, 1909

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

Every canning company had to have an identity for marketing. Seacoast developed labels that announced the company identity under its various “brands.” These 1909 printer’s proofs for its labels were found in the collections of the Lubec Historical Society. The labels were probably used on the boxes into which individual cans were inserted or as the masters for lithographed can covers, or both. Perhaps labels for the company’s plants in Lubec will be found.

These labels present some history that it takes a bit to decipher. At least two of them were part of the Seacoast Canning cartel: Columbian Canning and the firm of Mawhinney and Ramsdell. Perhaps Union was also. However, according to the evidence in Gilman, Lubec Sardine Co. was the major independent and competitor. (See pp. 73-74, 81). To a degree, then, the older Lubec firms in the cartel kept their identity, their “brands.” This would be important in the next years as the cartel was challenged and reorganized. In some cases, the old owners bought back their companies, and proceeded along.

3. American Can as Change Agent

Sardine can factory, Eastport, ca. 1880
Sardine can factory, Eastport, ca. 1880

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Every cannery had its own department for fabricating cans, that is, until the American Can plants in Lubec and Eastport started. This is a one in the series of engravings from photographs by T. W. Smillie in the mid-1880’s. The Photo Cray Co. in New York City published this version with color applied. The 1900 Report gives details on this step, allowing some understanding of the engraving. The workers are lined up on each side of the bench with individual stoves for heating their soldering iron. The report said “they are ‘the can makers,’ so called, who solder in the bottoms” of the cans (p. 88). Hall’s description of their task had more details (p. 475). It does not matter that the location of the photograph was Eastport. The same work was done in this step in Lubec and elsewhere.

Old Gun Rock Can Shop, Lubec, ca. 1900
Old Gun Rock Can Shop, Lubec, ca. 1900

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

Here in this can shop on Water Street, all the work of fabricating cans was carried out, no doubt. Tin plates came to the shop, undecorated ones for tops and bottoms, lithographed ones for the sides with the company name and brand. Plates for the sides had to be accurately sheared into strips. The tops and bottom were cut out of the plain plate and shaped. There was rimming and bending to be done, soldering of the ends of the sides together, the latter, the job of the “sealers.” Then the collars and bottom went to the “can-makers” for their expert attentions soldering the sides and bottoms together. This is how the work was done in Smillie’s time. It was still the same when Hall and the author of the article on the industry in 1900 Report were observing.

American Can Company, Lubec, ca. 1915
American Can Company, Lubec, ca. 1915

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

Oddly enough, no photographs have turned up of the technology that replaced the old can making system. There is this photo of the American Can plant seven years after it opened. A new one opened in Eastport also in 1908. Gilman says that “machine made cans” and “sealing machines” were made in both plants, but does not describe them.

Nevertheless, their impact was considerable. Those indicators of on-ground realities, the Sanborn Insurance maps, offer testimony. Canneries in Lubec in the 1903 edition show rooms labeled as places where cans were made. By the next edition, in 1911, no canneries had can making departments. The space was then generally labeled “Storage.” This must have meant unemployment for those men skilled in fabricating cans and, in the canning process, sealing them shut. Lewis Hine, a photographer investigating the use of child labor in the canneries in 1911, was convinced unemployment and damage to family life resulted.

4. Perspectives on Owners and Managers

Sardine Company Factory A Employees, Lubec, ca. 1901
Sardine Company Factory A Employees, Lubec, ca. 1901

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

This photograph, as others done at the time, can be looked at from two perspectives: One, the history of the owners and managers, and two, as part of the history of labor. From the first perspective: At first, the Lubec Sardine Co. was a mystery to people in town. No one was really sure who were the owners of this plant built in 1901, according to Gilman. He thinks it was really Bion Pike, Robert Peacock and others in the area. The ink was barely dry on the non-compete agreements they had signed with the cartel, when they set up a company with eventually four canneries that provided strenuous competition.

Battle-Axe Factory, Lubec, 1900
Battle-Axe Factory, Lubec, 1900

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

From the first perspective: The Lawrences were another family with long involvements in the canning industry as owners and managers. This photo was made in front of one of their several canneries in North Lubec. The Lawrences were also involved, as were Peacock, members of the Pike family, and others, in the cartel for a brief time. But the Lawrence company, North Lubec Manufacturing and Canning, had a long existence, continuing into the 1980s.

From the first perspective: McCurdys and McGonigals were involved in “the Columbian” from its beginning in 1891 to its end in the 1930s. With the previous two cannery group portraits there is a mystery why they were made. With this plant, there is not. Gilman relates that in April, 1911, the existing cannery and smokehouses burned down (p. 212). This is obviously the new building.

5. Perspectives on Labor

Old Gun Rock Can Shop, Lubec, ca. 1900
Old Gun Rock Can Shop, Lubec, ca. 1900

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

This can shop on Water Street was part of the Gun Rock cannery, itself, at the time, in the cartel. Notice that most the workers have soldering irons, the essential tool of their trade. Judging from the description of who did what in the can-making departments in Hall and in the 1900 Report, there was a hierarchy of skills and positions. The “can makers” had the top spot. There were other jobs and it is difficult from the present vantage point to say what the hierarchical levels were. At any rate, these were men’s jobs, and for this skilled work, they received good pay.

Sardine Company Factory A Employees, Lubec, ca. 1901
Sardine Company Factory A Employees, Lubec, ca. 1901

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

From the labor perspective, Lubec Sardine, as other canning companies, had to provide housing for some of its workers, and did so, as Sanborn Insurance maps reveal. The author of the 1900 Report indicates why: “A majority of the employees are residents of the towns and villages in which the canneries are located. Quite a number, however, come from the islands in the vicinity of Eastport and Lubec to work in the canneries in the summer and fall” (p. 87). Judging from the teenagers and children in the group portrait, families must have been among the employees staying in the housing.

Battle-Axe Factory, Lubec, 1900
Battle-Axe Factory, Lubec, 1900

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

From the labor perspective, what may be surprising the modern eyes is the number of young people working there in this 1900 photo and others of the era. There were those at the time who thought it was wrong, and others who thought it were reasonable and an economic necessity. Under a Maine law of 1887 children under the age of 12 could not work in manufacturing establishments. Canneries were the exception. Revisions of the law in 1907 raised the age to 14, and allowed investigation of working conditions.

The National Child Labor Committee believed that regular employment of children in industry was wrong. Lewis Hine, an investigative photographer for the Committee for a number of years, was assigned to look into the canneries Downeast.
When he visited in August, 1911, he took only two photos in North Lubec; more than fifty in Eastport. His concerns were working conditions and long hours. Also, he observed that schooling was given second place by some parents who needed the money the additional hands cutting or packing would bring. His concerns explain why he declared in the caption of the photo he made in a Lawrence cannery packing room “There are few children so used at this part of the work as yet, but more are likely to be.”

Columbian Canning Plant, Lubec, ca. 1912
Columbian Canning Plant, Lubec, ca. 1912

Item Contributed by
Lubec Historical Society

From the labor perspective, these women and the lone child must be from the
packing room. There are no “cutters” here. Presumably, they are at the cannery, but were not being photographed. Adult males are few, perhaps because American Can was close by and all the cans came up the road from there. Over in Eastport, Lewis Hine the year before had talked with members of cannery worker families about employment. They complained that with the new cans, there was no need for the skilled can makers and those who carried out the earlier steps of fabrication. Hine’s concern was that the need for money might force even more families to have their youngest members work in the canneries; thus, his comment about the Lawrence cannery photo above.

“Child Labor” was an issue among Republican and Democratic Progressives nationally at the time. However, the concept probably had little meaning in Lubec or Eastport. Remember, that American Can operated virtually year round, in contrast to the canneries, and offered considerable employment.