Historical Working Conditions Highlight Changes, Similarities

9-year-old Anna Gallant of Lubec is seen here in August of 1911 between shifts at a sardine canning factory in Eastport. Workers from all around the area traveled to Eastport to work long hours in difficult conditions. (Photo by Lewis Hine)

By Lura Jackson


There have been many significant social changes that have taken place since Calais and the surrounding communities were incorporated, and it can be an interesting foray into the past to examine how former residents lived and worked. Doing so can give us perspective on our modern lives, both in terms of how much and how little things have changed. 

In the early days, for example, The Calais Advertiser was operated by editor John Jackson, who harbored deeply-held views that challenged the lumber barons of the St. Croix Valley and advocated vociferously for the rights of the working person. Among the many notable pieces that Jackson left in the wake of his four decades of editorship are those that champion the rights of workers in St. Stephen, emphasizing the perception of the area as a single community. 

One particular piece recounts a strike enacted by the workers of a St. Stephen sawmill in 1860 in support of an eleven hour workday. “We have not heard the result but presume that, as in all such strikes, labor will have to succumb to capital,” Jackson writes of the strike in the April 5th, 1860 edition of The Calais Advertiser. “But eleven hours labor, in a saw mill, one would suppose is as much as any reasonable mill owner could in all conscience exact of men. But there are many on the river, we are sorry to believe, who would not be satisfied if men should labor twenty hours a day. Men who would coin the blood and muscle of their fellow men into dollars and cents to fill their coffers with filthy lucre. We hope the laborers may succeed in wringing the poor boon of a few hours less labor from their employers.” Jackson did not write anything further on the strike, meaning it was probably unsuccessful.

Striking for the privilege of an eleven-hour workday stands in sharp contrast to modern-day workers, who, on average, work for 8.8 hours a day with federally-mandated breaks. While we can’t attest to whether or not there are fewer men on the river who would “coin the blood and muscle of their fellow men”, we can appreciate that any robber barons still in existence have to work around regulations as well as social norms. 

Child labor is another field in which we have made significant strides as a society, though there are significant gaps that are worth mentioning. In the earlier days, child labor in the St. Croix Valley and in the sardine factories of Eastport was very commonplace, and fatalities and injuries were often the result. Those that survived the physical challenges were left with the psychological toll of long hours and difficult conditions. 

One young worker in an Eastport sardine factory was captured in a picture taken by Lewis Hine, a photographer that was best known for creating social reform through his profession. Hine photographed 9-year old Anna Gallant, who worked at Seacoast Canning Company, Factory No. 2, in 1911. Like many in the outlying towns, Gallant traveled to Eastport from Lubec with her family in the summer to can, making as much as $7 a day after working 17 hours. 

Many families working in the Eastport sardine factories came from Calais during the herring run, which lasted from April to December. The large influx of workers and families overwhelmed the former island, and temporary ramshackle dwellings were erected wherever possible. There was no sanitation available and reports widely indicate that the families lived in the very worst of conditions. 

While laws were passed in Maine that were aimed at deterring child labor at the turn of the 20th century, they were rarely enforced effectively. This was sometimes due to loopholes, such as in the case of a 1907 child labor law that prevented it – unless an “inspector” was present. On other occasions, there simply weren’t enough state inspectors to go around. A law passed in 1909 that forbade women and children from working more than 58 hours a week may have protected Anna, for instance, but it is unlikely that it was ever addressed.

Nations around the world now recognize that children have rights as humans and should be treated as such, something encompassed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child [CRC]. The CRC is the most ratified treaty ever put forth by the United Nations with the countries that ratifying it subjecting themselves to international law if there are violations. Only one country in the United Nations has not ratified it: the United States. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in 1995, but the Senate did not have the two-thirds majority required to pass it as a result of Republican legislators asserting that it challenged the nation’s sovereignty.

 Regardless of our social leanings or political affiliations in the modern era, there have been unmistakable changes in the working conditions of the region in the past century and a half.