High employment and wages of can-makers fade

A WAY OF LIFE DISAPPEARS

December 29, 1991|By Kim Clark

Three photographs in last Sunday's Business section showing cannery equipment from A. K. Robins' 1911 trade catalog were incorrectly credited. The photographs were provided by the Baltimore Museum of Industry archives and library collection.

They turned off the lights at the American National Can Co. plant at Sparrows Point yesterday, ending the state's 90-year association with a company whose history was at times venal, bloody, wildly profitable and generous.

Perhaps too generous.

Chicago-based American National Can said it ended its Baltimore operations, which had shrunk to 150 workers, because wages here were too high.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Workers concede that the $17 an hour they got was a good wage. But they say the company stuck the Baltimore plant with the oldest and least profitable tin can equipment, while other plants got modern equipment that could pump out popular aluminum cans.

Economists and can industry observers say both claims are true -- and also incomplete. They note that this is the sixth U.S. can plant to close in the last four months.

Can-makers are shuttering factories across the country because new technologies keep increasing the productivity of machines, reducing the need for workers and facilities.

In the meantime, consumers' growing demand for sleek aluminum cans or microwaveable plastic food packages has left can-makers foundering.

The industry, once one of the largest in Maryland, has shriveled. Its legacy in Baltimore: chic waterfront condos in renovated Canton factories.

"A whole way of life has changed forever," says Gilbert Sandler, a local historian.

Meanwhile, well-paying blue-collar jobs are leaving Baltimore, which already is struggling with a recession.

Although another can company plans to reopen and run the Sparrows Point plant, it will operate only about half of the equipment. US Can officials say they expect to hire about 100 employees, less than a third of the work force National employed as recently as 1986.

"Any time anybody closes their doors I want to cry," said Stephen Walters, a Loyola College associate professor of economics who worked at can plants to pay his way through college.

Big can factories hired hundreds of untrained workers, paid a living wage and served as the "launching pad for the people at the bottom of economic ladder," he said. "Can jobs are where you get your start. . . . The ladder is being withdrawn" from untrained workers looking for decent jobs.

Yesterday's plant closing stems from a consolidation trend that began the moment American Can entered Baltimore.

The year was 1901, and canning was the second-largest industry in the state.

Indeed, since Thomas Kensett, the holder of the first tin can patent in the United States, opened a plant here in the 1830s, Baltimore had become a national leader in food preservation and packaging. The reason: Chesapeake Bay oysters.

The first tin cans (they are really steel covered by a thin layer of tin) had to be painstakingly forged by hand, making them too expensive for all but the most costly foodstuffs.

Dozens of entrepreneurs started can plants to catch the boom in preserved foods. And local inventors, such as A. K. Shriver, were responsible for some of the most important food-processing productivity advancements in the 19th century.

Then, some businessmen backed by U.S. Steel, the biggest supplier of the tin-plated steel, hatched a plan to conquer the profitable industry.

By 1915, American Can had bought out many local can plants -- and destroyed competitors who wouldn't capitulate.

Edward Norton, who had started his Norton Tin Plate & Can Co. in Canton with $1,700 in 1890, sold his plant to American Can for $250,000. George Miller of Baltimore's H. F. Miller Co. sold out for $700,000, at a time when the average worker earned a few pennies an hour.

Charles Kirwan, a Maryland can-maker who refused the buyout offer, found his supplies of tin plate and machinery cut off. Kirwan & Tyler went broke not long afterward.

Consolidation trend

Once it dominated the local market, American Can shut down several plants. And from then on, the history of can-making in Baltimore was one of large companies constantly growing and consolidating.

The industry was dominated by a few large, prosperous companies: American, Crown Cork & Seal Co. Inc., Continental Can and, later, National Can.

Crown Cork & Seal, which made cans as well as bottle tops and "became a city within a city," said Crown Vice President Doug Goodell. "We had 10,000 workers, our own police force. . . ."

Meanwhile, Bethlehem Steel Corp. added machinery to plate steel with tin in 1917. By the 1950s, Bethlehem was producing nearly 1 million tons of can stock a year, employing more than 1,100 people on its tin plate line -- including its first female production workers.

Can-makers and packers employed as many as 25,000 Marylanders in the 1950s, making the industry the state's sixth-largest.

E9 And, for the most part, the workers liked their jobs.

Workers remember

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