Friday, November 23, 2018

Edith Daley Visits Campbell

One of my favorite finds for Santa Clara county history has been Edith Daley’s cannery stories. Daley was a writer for the San Jose Evening News in the ‘teens and early twenties. During a slow news summer in 1919, she spent a few weeks visiting the canneries around San Jose and writing about the people and sights in the cannery. Through her booster-ish writing, we learned about the modern, clean concrete floors and nursery at Del Monte’s Japantown cannery, Elmer Chase’s prohibition on asking canners how long they’d been in the business, Jenny Besana’s knowledge of fruit contracts at Contadina, or the size of Greco Canning’s tomato paste boiler. Daley had a large collection of non-cannery writings; she also wrote poetry and a history of World War I from San Jose eyes. However, the San Jose articles tell stories about the fruit business that we couldn’t get anywhere else.

I’ve been disappointed because Daley’s articles only focused on San Jose canneries - no dried fruit packers, and no plants outside San Jose (except for a quick visit to Pratt-Low in Santa Clara.) I’d always assumed this was local paper provincialism. However, a while back, I followed one of the classic tricks of library research - poke around at newspaper issues before and after the interesting articles, and see what turns up. (Full disclosure: I first used this research trick as a ten year old when I figured out that if I found a model railroad book at a particular place on the shelf, I ought to look at other books on the same shelf in case they were interesting.)

Pay dirt.

There’s no signs of articles by Edith Daley, but there were a pair of uncredited articles about the mood in Campbell as the fruit came in. Both articles have Daley’s voice, and read like rehearsals for the articles to come in subsequent weeks. They also match Daley’s interest in worker and child welfare which appeared in many of her articles. The first, “Many Types on Campbell Sts. as ‘Cots Start” on July 10, 1919, highlights the crowds coming to Campbell to work in the canneries. The second, “Better Living Conditions for Fruit Workers” in the July 11, 1919 issue, highlight both housing for cannery workers and conditions inside the cannery.

Daley had plenty of industry and workers to visit in Campbell. 1919 was the middle of a cannery boom in the Santa Clara valley as technology, demand, and the end of World War I coincided. Edith remarked on three canneries in Campbell: California Canneries (a new outpost for a San Francisco canner, with a new building ready for canning within two months of construction), “J. C. Ainslee” (sic), and the George E. Hyde Company. The Hyde Cannery still exists as the Water Tower Plaza office complex near downtown. The Ainsley cannery, just north of Campbell Ave., is currently townhouses. California Cannery’s sawtooth warehouses still sit just south of Fry’s Electronics.

All three were going great guns during her visit. California Canneries, like Ainsley, exported canned apricots to England, and has just announced it had sent its first 1400 cases to Liverpool. Summer heat affected the ripening; the previous day, the canneries were able to handle all their fruit by mid-afternoon “but if the hot spell had continued they soon would have been working triple time.” Speed of ripening was a huge issue in those days; “one prominent fruit man” claimed we could have lost a million dollars in fruit if the hot weather had continued for four days, for the fruit couldn’t have been canned quickly enough.

Daley commented significantly on how the canneries and the fruit rush required many more people than could be gotten from Santa Clara county, and relied on attracting temporary workers. Now, a huge influx of workers isn’t always seen as positive. There’s stories about the pea harvests in Alameda County in the 1930’s attracting harvesters before the crop started; the locals weren’t always happy with the itinerant labor turning up, especially if they didn’t have cash to live on. Daley suggests that the gathering hordes in Campbell were more welcomed.

“They say that the population of Campbell has more than doubled overnight - in less than a week at any rate - and one can well believe it as one walks around the streets of the little orchard city.

“And what a variety of them there are! There is the city girl, who takes it all as a lark, and, it is feared, is a little more afraid of spoiling her hands than the efficient worker should be. She is not averse to earning a few dollars for fall hats during the summer months, however.

“Then there is the black-eyed little Italian girl - the most efficient worker in the game. It is a matter of dollars and cents with her and she clears $5 or $6 a day without half trying when the 'cots are running good.

“There are the ex-tired businessmen of the bay cities who want to spend a few days away from the pavements and who have brought their wives and kiddies with them to enjoy the celebrated Santa Clara valley. And kiddies! There are scores of them,, of assorted sizes, shapes, and colors. All with little sunburned noses and knees, and a universally happy expression of health and pleasure.”

The idea of city folks coming to help out isn’t new; there are stories of school teachers moonlighting at Contadina in the 1940’s, and judges acting as fruit buyers in the Central Valley, but Daley makes it sound as if pulling in temporary workers from San Francisco was commonplace. It’s almost as if Apple drew ten thousand temps from around California each summer to assemble the new new iPhone.

Daley’s “little Italian girl” is an interesting counterpoint with the likely-anglo workers from the city. 1919 was at the tail end of a huge wave of Italian immigration to the U.S. between 1900 and 1920. Although the little Italian girl was likely born in the U.S., she was still a bit alien to Daley’s eyes… and like most new immigrants much more focused on earning money for the summer than the city folks out on a lark. Daley’s newspaper articles for other canneries usually comment on workers in two ways - either the longevity of the (anglo) crew (“many have been here for twenty years”) or the many languages being spoken. Daley seemed bemused and interested in the newcomers; when she visited Contadina, she commented on packing cardoni (artichoke variant cultivated for the stems), she noted the new foods being introduced. “Our every day salt-and-pepper-and-butter with an occasional bit-of-onion palates are finding new satisfactions in Italian flavorings. Maybe before long we'll find Cardoni on every menu!” I suspect Daley wouldn’t mind that her children and grandchildren are eating pizza and burrata.

It’s a bit surprising that Campbell in 1919 was still using primarily anglo workers, and that the Italian girl stood out enough to get Edith’s attention, for new immigrants were awfully common in the fruit industry. A 1919 Del Monte Lug Box newsletter included sections in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, hinting at the numbers of new southern European immigrants filling its canneries. Edith’s later visit to Bisceglia Brothers mentioned workers from Oregon, Nevada, Watsonville, Calaveras, and Napa and Sonoma Counties - many Italian, though Daley mentioned several languages being spoken. Bisceglia Brothers rounded up their workers with letters in the spring offering work and “free rent” in their cannery village.

Daley highlighted how the crush of workers drained Campbell’s housing. Daley’s guess that Campbell’s population doubled wasn’t too far off - Campbell only had 2,000 residents in 1939, so for 1919, a few hundred workers per cannery would certainly double the population. Workers pitched tents wherever they could - army tents, pup tents, and pieces of canvas stretched around poles. Some brought camping trailers. Edith noted that California Canneries had a canning village of wood and canvas cottages (with cot, table, stove, and running water); Ainsley’s canning village exploded in size in 1919, with “little red cottages nested among the rows of cot trees with the branches bruising against the windows”, and the dirt roads along the orchard lined with more cars than “First Street on a Saturday afternoon”. (That’s First Street in San Jose, the main shopping street, not some sort of rush for margaritas at the future site of Aqui in Campbell.) Ainsley’s cottages rented for $2.50 a month, and Daley claimed she could hear Victrolas playing “Over There” from within.

That $2.50 a month wasn’t free, but it was awfully cheap. Wages averaged $3.50 a day (unless you were the extremely productive little Italian girl.) Getting fed cost 25 cents a meal at the company cafeteria. Children under fourteen went to the cannery kindergartens to be minded. The working conditions weren’t too bad either, with Ainsley installing fans driven by belt to cool the cannery.

And, in typical Edith Daley fashion, the cannery was described as a fruit slaughterhouse where an apricot entering would not be long for this world.

“Cookers, syrups, all the machines are arranged a la Ford factory, with the fruit received at the receiving door at one end of the plant and issuing into the warehouse at the other end in the form of cases of cans of 'cots - extra fine. A cot never retraces its steps after it reaches the fatal doorway. It might as well abandon hope as it enters, for its doom is sealed and it is only a few minutes before it is pitted, sorted, syruped, exhausted, cooked, canned, its lid sealed on, labelled, and stored away until some bally Britisher orders it for his breakfast and it must start its long jaunt across America and the Atlantic towards its final resting place.”

So thank you again, Edith, for the local color. I’ll be pitching a bunch of tents in my HO scale orchards, and make sure the Campbell downtown streets are packed. I’ll make sure to add the little Italian girl to the Campbell street scene. She’d be twenty years older than when Edith saw her, and might have her children in tow for a month of canning ‘cots. But just like in Edith’s day, Ainsley’s kindergarten would still be operating in 1930’s Campbell, and Campbell’s city streets would still be filled during fruit season.