Living history HD: Museum of Industry gives visitors a feel for bygone era in Baltimore

November 01, 1990|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

SUZZANNE CASH started the day as boss of the oyster shuckers and ended it as president of one of Baltimore's oldest and largest oyster canneries. She liked overseeing the shucking, she said, but she didn't seem to mind taking over the big wooden desk in the office with a view of Baltimore harbor.

Just outside the office door, a line of shuckers was working quickly, opening the shells, plucking out the ersatz oysters, putting them in buckets and calling to the loaders for more.

Nearby, fillers were waiting to put oysters into cans, cap the containers and send them to the steamer.

Upstairs, skilled workers were printing labels and making cans to send down a zigzag chute to be filled.

The Platt Oyster Cannery, circa 1880, was in full production as the noonday sun filled the harbor.

Cash had assumed the role of Sandy Platt, cannery owner, pretty much by luck of the draw. Similarly, the shuckers, loaders, fillers, printers and can-makers had taken their places by lots. But they were learning, as they worked, that 100 years ago the jobs were assigned more by a person's color, sex, schooling and nationality, than by luck.

The workers, members of Cathlene Brady's fourth-grade class at the city's Westport Elementary School, initiated The Cannery, the newest participatory exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Reminiscent of the more than 100 canneries that encircled the harbor in the late 1800s, the activity center offers its visitors a chance to become 19th century cannery workers.

The cannery opens to the public this weekend. School groups have been trying it out for several weeks.

Museum officials have been thinking about it for more than five years. Because so many of the museum's machines are too large and too dangerous for children to operate, "We wished we had more hands-on for children," said Ann Steele, the museum's assistant director.

That "wish" led a few years ago to the development of an automobile assembly line that children can operate. The success of that line, produced by the museum staff, brought on an even bigger wish -- for a larger exhibit that children could get into while learning about work and Baltimore in the late 19th century.

Before the youngsters go to work, they see a video about Baltimore's canning industry. The film is connected to a large map of Baltimore harbor that lights up to show the location of various points of interest.

The videotape also introduces some of the people who work in the cannery. There is, of course, Platt, owner of one of the city's premier oyster canneries. There is also a 12-year-old black shucker, who talks about his life and family; a Polish-born "labeler" who aspires to be a label-maker, and an apprentice printer who is lucky enough to live with the master printer.

These characters were researched in the city's census records, said Steele, to present "serious social history" to the youngsters.

After the video, participants are assigned a "role" and given a card with information about the person they will portray -- age, race, family makeup. Then the cannery workers take their places at the various work stations, where museum guides ease them into their jobs. Each work area has a foreman who is responsible for his workers' output.

After about 15 minutes of work, the "shift" ends and workers are paid in brass tokens. Then participants switch roles, with the unskilled workers taking on skilled positions, and vice versa. When that shift ends, the workers can go to the company store, where they find out what their wages will -- or won't -- buy.

The average cannery worker in 1883 made $9.60 a week, Sheila Garred, the museum's educational coordinator, told the workers from Westport Elementary. "Food would cost $3.85 for a family of four and rent, $1.25," she told the children who were eyeing the toys and other things on the store shelves.

"The unfortunate fact about going to work," said Garred, is having to pay for necessities before buying "all the wonderful things you would like to buy."

Even though the youngsters realized they had worked hard for little money, they seemed to enjoy their day in the cannery.

"This is a fun place," said Mike Freemen, who was promoted from shucker to office clerk on the second shift. "You get to touch things."

Mark Fisher, who was printing labels lickety-split on his first shift, agreed, "It fun."

"In order to teach something, children have to enjoy it," said Steele, who takes the "happy looks" she sees on the youngsters' faces as signs that they are learning and enjoying.

The cannery's social history is not sugar-coated, she said. The children learn that 90 percent of the cannery jobs went to men; that most cannery workers were shuckers; and that most of the shuckers were black because they had few other job opportunities. The can-makers were the most highly skilled of the cannery workers; they were mostly men of German descent.

Women were employed only to fill and pack cans and put lids on them. The women were not allowed to learn can-making.

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