When sardines were big

Eastport’s economic glory days were when the city was the Sardine Capital of the World.

They’re small herring and abounded in the waters around Eastport, where they were easily caught and delivered straight to the cannery atop the wharf.

Here are some related facts.

  1. Napoleon Bonaparte helped initiate the canning of sardines, the first fish to be so preserved.
  2. Packing in Maine took off from Eastport in the 1870s and peaked around 1900, with 75 plants, mostly along the Downeast coast. The first sardine cannery in Eastport started in 1865 but failed to reduce the moisture in the cans, leading to a sharp, unpleasant odor. Its owner returned to Portland and found success with baked beans. Others in Eastport improved the process.
  3. The workforce was largely women, with blurring hands and sharp knives or scissors expertly packing the small fish into cans – as crowded as sardines, as the popular expression went. Their hands were in cold seawater, year-‘round.
  4. Eastport also cranked out the cans and lithographed labels.
  5. The fish were packed in cottonseed oil, soy oil, or upper-end mustard sauce.
  6. The world’s biggest sardine cannery jutted 250 feet out from the shore at the entrance to Shackford Cove.
  7. Home refrigeration doomed the industry, making fresh cod, haddock, and other fish readily accessible.
  8. Sardine tins were part of soldiers’ rations during the world wars.
  9. The discarded fish parts were used to make fertilizer, while the scales were transformed into pearl essence, a shiny coloring used in many consumer products.
  10. Vintage sardine cans and labels are collectors’ items.
Eastport’s sardine canneries were also centers of child labor, as photographer Lewis Wickes Hine documented in August of 1911. Above, Fulsom McCutcheon, 11, was a worker at the covering machines. The world’s biggest sardine cannery extends behind him. It was about two blocks from my house. 
Hiram Pulk, 9, cuts sardines at the Seacoast Canning Company’s Factory No. 1 in Eastport. “I ain’t very fast – only about five boxes a day. They pay five cents a box,” he was quoted. Both photos from the Library of Congress collection.



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