The Costs of Mechanization: Technology and Labor in the Pacific Coast Canneries by Eliza McClenagan

Prior to the last half of the nineteenth century, canneries were operated manually by many men and women of different races. However, throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, fish canneries on the Pacific Coast became mechanized, mainly due to the desire for increased productivity and efficiency, as well as the lack of a big enough workforce. As the development of canning machinery largely replaced the manual canning process, many jobs were eliminated or changed. This in turn impacted the lives and occupations of workers, particularly racial minorities, at the canneries.

Before mechanization, workers carried out the canning process entirely by hand. However, from around 1880 to 1900, the canneries underwent a first wave of technological innovation, due primarily to the need for increased output. The steam retort was the first machine to be widely used in the canneries. During this first wave, mechanization reached almost every part of the tin can sector of the canneries. However, advancements in cannery technology generally consisted of machines that supplemented manual labor, but did not replace it. This first wave of innovation contributed to a large upswing in cannery productivity, as even in 1883, production went up from approximately 150 – 200 cases per day to 2500 – 4000. Interestingly, mechanization in B.C. lagged slightly behind other canneries on the Pacific Coast, perhaps partially because it continued to admit at least some Chinese labor until the 1920s.

However, even by 1905, cannery operators found that there was still not enough equipment, labor, or supplies to process fish and match demand. Due to the mechanization of the tin can sector, the manual methods still used to process the fish simply could not keep up with the machines. This problem was exacerbated by the lack of sufficient Chinese labor at the time, as the canning process was almost completely dependent on the Chinese. While some scholars argue that machines like the “Iron Chink” were put in place primarily because of the racist desire to eliminate Chinese labor, it is more probable that cannery owners were simply concerned about the aforementioned issues of production, efficiency, and the fact that laws limiting Asian immigration were reducing the amount of available labor.

Many of these issues were resolved when the canning industry became entirely mechanized during the second wave of innovation in the canneries that began in 1905. This second wave started with the invention of the Iron Butcher, which saved time, cost, and labor, as just one machine replaced around eighteen butchers. The sanitary can was another major innovation at this time, as it sealed cans of fish without solder. Other machines invented included filling, salting, weighing, and sealing machines. However, some manual jobs (just far fewer) remained even after the canneries were mostly mechanized. For instance, wage records from the 1960s for the North Pacific Cannery list both “hand filler” and “filling machine” as jobs, showing the transition from hand filling to filling machine at this time. Additionally, improvements and alterations to previous machines became necessary during this second wave of innovation.

While the mechanization of the cannery substantially diminished production costs and increased production by about fifty percent, it also caused a great reduction of jobs and changed many of those that remained, as workers were now needed to run the machines and fix them when they broke down. Unfortunately, as mechanization decreased the amount of manual labor still necessary, many people lost their jobs, particularly racial minorities. Chinese workers were particularly affected by mechanization, due to the fact that a large part of their previous work consisted of operating the manual canning process, which was now replaced by machines. White, Japanese, and First Nations male workers were less affected than the Chinese, as they typically had jobs less impacted by mechanization, such as mechanic, laborer, and watchman. Many of the remaining jobs like supervising and attending to/repairing the machines became white male labor rather than First Nations or Asian labor. Women were usually excluded from doing the mechanized tasks, instead carrying out any remaining manual tasks. Furthermore, mechanization increased the percentage of unskilled labor in the canneries, as jobs gradually became increasingly broken down into smaller and unskilled tasks.

On the whole, the mechanization of the fish canneries had a great impact on both the canning process and the workers who relied on the canneries for their livelihoods. At first, mechanization merely supplemented manual labor, but by the first half of the twentieth century, it had essentially replaced most of it. Unfortunately, while the cannery owners and operators benefited from the mechanization of canning, many of the workers were impacted less positively.

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