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Nature in the Cannery

So-called “Iron Chink”
Fish Cleaning Machine (detail)
University of Washington Collections
OrHi 45708
So-called “Iron Chink”
Fish Cleaning Machine (detail)
University of Washington Collections
OrHi 45708

Natural resources also influenced the industrial and social order inside canneries. Cans were an assembly of Bolivian tin and Missouri lead that laborers first cut and fused by hand. Significant profits hinged on the workers’ ability to produce cans quickly and to seal them so bacteria did not ruin the meat. These were imperfect tasks when done by hand, however, and within a few years industry leaders began to mechanize these tasks. In 1876 they adopted the Howe Soldering Machine, made in England and fueled by charcoal produced from local forests, to fabricate cans faster and more reliably.

Meanwhile cannery labor underwent changes that increasingly reflected racist attitudes about human nature. Until the early 1870s, Columbia canners employed a multi-ethnic labor force, but problems with turnover led William Hume to rely more and more exclusively on Chinese laborers, mostly because Asians had few employment options and so were more likely to work an entire season. The experiment worked, and other canners began to follow suit. Industry observers began to view Chinese workers as naturally suited for cannery work because they had hands “as nimble as a woman’s” and were docile, or as federal fisheries researcher John Cobb put it, caused “less trouble.” These ideas accommodated broader notions of racial difference, but the roots of this industrial relation derived from the contingencies of industrial employment and racial exclusion in the fisheries. They were anything but natural.

Canners struggled constantly to impose an orderly factory system upon disorderly nature. They wrote contracts that stipulated the number of fish and cans to be processed each day by each worker, but they could not control the supply of fish. Most of the time canneries operated at less than efficient capacity, often receiving below-optimum supplies during light or delayed runs, only to be overwhelmed during the peak of runs when fishers could deliver over ten times the normal catch. Cannery piers sagged under these harvests, and, as one man noted, workers were “not so much like men struggling with innumerable fish, as like human maggots wiggling and squirming among the swarms of salmon.” The scale and variability of Columbia River runs caused havoc with the imagined order of a factory. Like other entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution, salmon canners tried to compensate through mechanization. Production accelerated throughout the 1870s and 1880s as automatic can fillers assumed the job of placing fish in cans, rotary washers cleaned the filled cans, and retorts cooked the cans.

Such innovations significantly increased capacity and efficiency, but consumers quickly noticed the difference in the quality of meat packed by hand versus machine. Thus canners were forced to retain laborers to pack the gourmet product by hand. As the story of the “Iron Chink” illustrates, the nature of salmon frustrated their attempts to mechanize. In 1903 Canadian inventor Edmund Smith introduced a machine that would automate the cutting and cleaning of salmon. The device, whose express purpose was to take the place of expensive Chinese butchers, was dubbed the “Iron Chink.” Canners from Puget Sound northward rapidly integrated Smith's machine into their production. North of the Columbia the sockeye and pink salmon were industry mainstays, and canners could mechanize the butchering of these species because adults ranged little in size. Before the 1930s, however, Columbia chinook normally ranged between fifteen and seventy pounds. No machine could handle such variability, so human labor was still the most efficient way to process the Columbia's magnificent bounty. The biological diversity of salmon thus played a crucial role in the economic management of Columbia River canneries.

© Joseph E. Taylor III, 2006.

Era: (1968-Present) Modern U.S. History / Modern Oregon History
Themes: Biography
Author: Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens
Regions: Columbia River,Northeastern Oregon
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Natural and Cultural Foundations
Saving Salmon
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Viewing the Past through the Prism of Nature
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