Canning Nature: Sardines and the Transformation of the Family Economy in Coastal New England and Atlantic Canada, 1875-2009

Document Type

Grant Proposal

Date Accepted

Spring 2011

Project Description/Abstract

The sardine is not a fish. It is a particular method of processing fish that was pioneered in Sardinia in the early nineteenth century. The method quickly spread throughout Europe and reached the United States in the late nineteenth century. By the fall of 1875 Henry Sellmann and Julius Wolff began experimenting with the “Russian” method of canning fish in oil under the direction of the Eagle Fish Company in Eastport, Maine in the hope of establishing a domestic supply of this increasingly popular food product. By the early 1880s there were dozens of sardine processing plants in Downeast Maine. Prior to the arrival of the sardine processing plants on the coast, family economy was dominated by male fishermen tied to the bait fishery, and child and female labor tied to more traditional domestic work with some supporting roles in the fisheries economy. Women repaired nets and assisted men with land-based fishery labor, but for the most part their employment was directed to subsistence agriculture and domestic work. Highly valued and essential work, but not market oriented. The opening of canning facilities in a coastal village offered women and children an alternative form of labor that brought them into the industrial economic web of the United States. Thus, within a single generation coastal family economy went from very traditional local and domestic activities to an industrialized economy dominated by a single processing plant. Men redirected their labor of catching herring fish away from the bait fishery and into the sardine canneries while their wives and children took jobs within that cannery. As such, these canneries came to dominate the family economy of Downeast Maine and southern New Brunswick.

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