The Gibbs Canning Company
Cannery Conditions and the Polish Workforce
Formerly located on Boston Street in east Baltimore, Gibbs Preserving Company canned and packaged everything from oysters to jelly to candy to vegetables. The Gibbs Preserving Company exemplified typical working conditions in factories at the turn of the century. Employees worked long hours, doing monotonous tasks, all while earning little pay. and facing safety hazards. In addition, cannery employees worked in hazardous environments. At least two fires broke out at the Gibbs cannery; one fire starting in the labeling room and the other in the jelly department.
A large percentage of cannery employees came from east Baltimore’s Polish community. Populating most of Fells Point, Polish families looked to canneries for work. Polish women and children worked at canneries alongside men in order to earn increased wages. Workers’ wages played a vital role in the debate for the ten-hour work day. Cannery workers in favor of the ten-hour work day argued that canning companies overworked their employees. By contrast, cannery workers against the ten-hour day argued that workers should be allowed to work however many hours it takes to make a liveable wage. Workers against the ten-hour law stated in one Baltimore Sun article, “that restricting the hours of labor would deprive the women of an opportunity to earn a living; that the season was short and must, therefore, yield them the largest possible earnings…”
While Polish cannery workers lived in Fells Point, the Polish community did not remain in east Baltimore for the entire year, but rather moved according to the seasons. At the end of the Baltimore City canning season in August, the Polish community in east Baltimore temporarily relocated to the Maryland countryside in search of employment from corn and tomato canneries. Working conditions in the country varied, but overall were still undesirable. In one particular camp, workers had to make their own kitchens from wooden planks and cloth; in another camp cannery waste covered the floor of the employee’s sleeping quarters.
At the end of the countryside canning season, Polish workers returned to east Baltimore to enjoy a meager one week of rest before leaving for the oyster canneries in the south.