Today– the 10th part of my special 11-part series “`The Shrimp Capital of the World’– Charles Farrell’s Photographs of Southport, N.C., 1938.”
These are all scenes from inside Ben Gray’s shrimp house during Charles Farrell’s visit to Southport, N.C., in the fall of 1938.
One of the first things we notice is the large number of children working in the shrimp house. Some of the workers can’t be even 10 years old.
Child labor was the rule, not the exception, in Southport’s shrimp industry. The same was true throughout North Carolina’s seafood processing industry.
If you grew up on a farm in those days, or doing farm labor, as most of the mothers in Southport’s shrimp houses did, child labor did not seem unusual the way it does to most of us today.
Many mothers, in fact, preferred to keep their children at their side, where they could watch over and protect them, as long as the children’s work was not unduly stressful, abusive or dangerous.
A shrimp house was its own world. When the toil wasn’t too wearing, some were almost festive. On some nights, in some shrimp houses, the women sang gospel hymns and popular songs to pass the time and to find the strength to keep going.
Some company managers were loved, and some despised. But if a company’s manager didn’t want to end up with thousands of pounds of shrimp rotting on his dock, he was wise to remember his manners.
Lewis Hardee was one of the shrimp canning pioneers in Fernandina Beach, Florida. In the mid-1930s, he started the Colonial Shrimp Company at the foot of Howe Street in Southport.
When I corresponded with his son, Lewis Hardee, Jr., he remembered the shrimp headers at his father’s business and described the way that they worked in almost musical terms:
“… they would plunge their hands into a pile of shrimp, grab both fists full and start to head them. They developed a rhythm, first with one hand then the other, rather like pulling taffy, snapping off the heads down a drain trough that emptied into the river.”
After the workers filled their gallon buckets with headed shrimp, they moved them into larger galvanized pails and then dumped them into the house’s big vat and got paid.
As you can see in this photograph, one of the shrimp house’s managers immediately paid a nickel or a token every time one of the workers dumped their bucket into the vat.
Rheumatism, arthritis and skin infections were the banes of a shrimp header and peeler’s work life. There’s a reason so many of the workers were so young: older people’s hands stopped working.
The photograph above also reminds us of the hierarchy of race and gender in the town’s shrimp business.
Shrimp house owners and managers were always white men. Headers, peelers and canners were nearly always African American women and children. Black men did most of the heavy lifting jobs. Office staff were often white women, in many cases the wife, daughter or niece of the company’s owner.
On the boats, the percentage of black and white shrimpers fluctuated in Southport over the decades. At times, whites made up the majority of the town’s shrimping crews. At other times, African Americans made up the majority of the town’s shrimping crews.
In this photograph, one of the shrimp house workers is dumping her pail of headed shrimp in the vat at John Gray’s shrimp house.
Ready for Shipment
In this scene, one of the shrimp house workers is shoveling shrimp onto a scale that he will then empty into a wooden box. The company’s workers will later carry the box load of shrimp to the train depot for shipment most likely to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City.
When I visited with former Southport shrimper and shrimp dealer Jimmy Moore, he told me that he felt sure the man in these two photographs was Prim Ray, whom he remembered for his “dry, pithy wit.”
The shrimp house workers packed the shrimp in 100 pound boxes with plenty of ice from the Southport Ice Co., owned at that time by M. R. Sanders. A small cottage industry in town made the boxes: they were usually made out of gum, which was cheap and didn’t split as easy as pine.
Next time, the end of the series–
“Hurricane Hazel– `All that was left was pilings'”