Up and down the streets and stoops of East Baltimore, Depression-era women left their homes for the packinghouses


February 16, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez

My grandmother was a bean snipper.

The New World daughter of Old World Poles, Anna Potter Jones started making her own way in life as a child. At 9, she lost her mother to cancer and her father promised never to marry again. With her 11-year-old sister, Anna helped raise three younger siblings and began a lifetime of work.

I knew that my grandmother had been a flapper during the Roaring '20s, had sewn sandbags for the Allies during World War II, and that she had once taken my mother to see Lou Costello in person at the old Hippodrome Theater.

But I never knew she was a bean snipper in a packinghouse.

Stories float through my family likes prayers drifting through the cosmos, and the ones told in the neighborhoods of Baltimore's immigrant holy land -- Highlandtown, Broadway and Canton -- were magnificent.

Growing up I heard tales of bicycles carved from wood, of distant teen-age relatives who died fighting Franco, of sea dogs who built cabin cruisers in their living rooms, and about soup made with prunes and the fresh blood of ducks.

Through the weave of such yarns there would be talk about "the packin' house," the place where Anna Jones worked for nickels during the Depression.

When I later found out that almost every Polish woman of her generation labored in Baltimore's canning industry -- that the story of my grandmother was stenciled across the harbor landscape a thousand times over -- I set out to preserve it in the words of the survivors.

To find these women, I walked along the streets and alleys of the old Polish neighborhoods and started knocking on doors, just the way a man known as Mr. Roberts did in the 1930s. I began at my grandmother's little brick rowhouse on Dillon Street.

In 1937, as the Great Depression rolled through its eighth year, Mr. Roberts came begging women to work for him.

My grandmother listened to his pitch while a little girl hid behind her skirt. "He needed help bad," she said. "But my Gloria was only 3 years old and I told him: 'I got a young baby at home, I can't work.' And he said I could bring Gloria with me, so I did. She sat next to me while I worked in the packinghouse."

My grandmother, one of thousands of Poles living along the Southeast Baltimore waterfront before World War II, married as a teen-ager and had three kids before she was 23. An offer to make a few bucks without having to hire a baby sitter was perfect and, taking him up on the offer, Anna Jones embarked on a working-class career that lasted 35 years at East Baltimore factories making everything from canned goods to slipcovers. The money helped add to the few dollars my grandfather made as a journeyman laborer.

The little girl at her skirt was my mother and the Roberts packinghouse was her first playground.

The Roberts family owned the fruit and vegetable cannery around the corner on Binney Street, a block-long, unheated wooden building in the looming shadow of the American Can Co. was one of many similar buildings in the long-vanished Baltimore that was once the nation's great canning center for everything from oysters to pineapples.

At the packinghouse, my grandmother stood over a table cutting the ends off of string beans the snipping machine had missed. Next to her sat my mother on an upside-down bushel basket.

"Some of the baskets would be stacked 20 high and we'd move them around to build houses with doorways and play out on the sidewalk," my mother recalled. "And to keep us out of his hair in the summertime the foreman would let us cap strawberries for pennies."

The packinghouse was open to the street and the older children who spent the day praying the rosary in Polish and learning to read at St. Casimirs School around the corner often came over during lunch.

"I remember going over there lots of times just to talk with her," my mother said. "We could always just run in and out. You walked in and you knew that your mom was sitting over at the bean belt."

"It was a good job if you had kids because you could run home at lunch when they came home from school and eat with them," my grandmother said. "And when they went back to school, you went back to work."

The job paid on "piece work" and the women made so much per bucket of tomatoes, or pound of spinach, or basket of strawberries, receiving tokens that were redeemed for cash at the end of the day. "We made a quarter an hour," she said.

On Saturday the women worked until all of the produce had been processed so the plant could be hosed down before Sunday, the only day off at the packinghouse. "I remember standing up around the snipper all week, and my feet would swell up," she said. "And on Sunday the kids would want you to take them out somewhere, but my feet hurt so bad you'd almost have to do nothing on Sunday just to be ready for Monday."

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