Cannery Life, Del Monte in the Santa Clara Valley

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Mission brand yellow cling peaches label

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Work tasks in the cannery were neatly divided between food preparation and industrial work, both skilled and unskilled.

Men soldering cans at San Jose Fruit Packing Company, c. 1895.The skilled work and heavy lifting in the canneries were typically done by men.  Skilled tinsmiths and machinists developed the canning technology, and built and maintained the machines.  Unskilled male workers brought the produce into the cannery, loaded cans, and warehoused the finished products.  Many of these jobs were likely to be year round, since warehouse and machine work could be done during the slow times between harvests.  In the early 20th century, immigrant men from southern Europe dominated the canneries’ unskilled labor market.  American-born men were more likely to hold skilled technical jobs or management positions.  Asian-American men were hired for cannery work, but were typically restricted to unskilled warehouse, labeling and non-packing jobs.  Some canneries and packing houses even advertised that their product had been packed “by white labor only,” in line with the virulent anti-Asian racism of this period.

Early cannery workers, c 1905.The food preparation tasks were done largely by women.  Very early on, cannery operators recognized that women already had skills in sorting, cutting, slicing and preparing fruit.  These “domestic” tasks were also considered more appropriate for women than men.  Women worked at large tables, where men brought them crates of fruit to be peeled, pitted, sliced or cut.  Women were paid based on how much was processed at each table, so the table often worked together as a team to process fruit quickly.  These jobs were only available during the canning seasons.  As early as 1875, canneries were actively recruiting young women to work during the summer months, promoting it as a way to earn extra money and work with their peers.