Today– part 3 of my series “`The Shrimp Capital of the World:’ Charles Farrell’s Photographs of Southport, N.C., 1938″
When I visited with him at his home a few years ago, 91-year-old Charles “Pete” Joyner shook his head when he thought about how hard the women worked in Southport’s shrimp houses when he was young.
When Charles Farrell took these photographs, the local companies paid the women piece rate: 5 cents for a 10-quart bucket of headed shrimp.
Most of the shrimp houses paid their workers in nickels. Others paid in tokens—metal plugs that the workers had to redeem for groceries at a company store.
Most of the women, Mr. Joyner recalled, worked from 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when the shrimp boats came in, and peeled 30 to 40 buckets a shift, going home to rest weary bones at 9 or 10 o’clock at night.
Farrell took these photographs of a local shrimp house at night, using flash photography.
In an article in the Southport Pilot, the editor, W. B. Keziah wrote, “Some of the workers about the darkened boats and in the picking house of Ben Gray were a little startled by the sudden glare but the cooperation was fine.”
When it comes to their wages, it’s not hard to do the math: if a woman headed 40 buckets of shrimp a day and the shrimp house owner paid 5 cents per bucket, she made $2.00 a day.
If it was especially cold or if they suffered from arthritis or rheumatism, they didn’t even make that much.
Many of the women did not go home at 9 or 10 o’clock. If there were still shrimp to head, they kept going to midnight and later.
“They would head until the blood be coming out of the fingers,” Mr. Joyner told me.
Shrimp Houses & Canneries
Mr. Joyner recalled when Southport was awash in shrimp. When he was young in the 1920s and ’30s, the boats often came in the Cape Fear River loaded to the scuppers. When the shrimp were running and the market was strong, 100 to 200 of them a day unloaded their catches behind the long row of shrimp houses and canneries that lined the waterfront.
When the shrimp were running thick, the big local trawlers dumped around 200 bushels of shrimp on the dock at a time, he remembered—the smaller boats, perhaps 80 or 90 bushels.
Sometimes the shrimp house workers needed two days to head and pack a day’s catch. They’d work until midnight and still have to ice down shrimp overnight and start again early the next morning.
On those occasions, shrimp house owners often drove trucks out into rural parts of Brunswick County before daybreak. In those neighborhoods, they’d recruit extra workers to come in early and help finish the job before the trawlers came back into port with a new load of shrimp that afternoon.
Next time– part 4– “All the Men have gone Shrimping”