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K.3.1 Women preparing fish at cannery, Benicia, Solano County

Line of women in uniform, table with bowls of fish in front. McCurry no.: 33325-B-8.
McCurry Foto Co
Photographic Print

McCurry Foto Co. Women preparing fish at cannery, Benicia, Solano County, 1938. California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

Teachers will orally lead a primary source investigation to support student reading, analysis, and interpretation: What do you see? What are the details? Who or what is in the picture? What do you think is happening in this picture? What actions are taking place? Who do you think created the photograph? Why? Is this work you know something about?  (Sentence starters are provided with this lesson’s literacy support.)  

The canning of fish in Benicia, in Northern California, is believed to have begun with the Hume Carquinez Packing Company in 1864. In the 1860s, salmon from the Sacramento River were in abundant supply. At its height in the 1880s, the cannery business processed 10 million pounds of salmon.[1] Eventually, nearby waters were overfished and the business transitioned to canning fruit and vegetables, as well as other seafood (roe, oysters, sardines). The cannery operated until the 1950s.

The women pictured in Source 1 are preparing fish for canning in Benicia, 1938. As a means of encouraging students to consider the labor that goes into canned goods, teachers may ask students what canned foods they eat and how they think they are produced. After providing some time to consider the food production cycle, from the farmer or fisher to the packaging warehouse to the store, students can then evaluate the various aspects of the women working in this photograph. Students may then find many aspects of this photograph interesting: (1) the predominance of women laborers; (2) the hair nets for food safety, but not gloves; (3) the lack of mechanization; and (4) the poor lighting.


[1] City of Benicia: Historic Context Statement (San Francisco: Page and Turnbull, 2010), 70. The report references Andrew Neal Cohen,  Gateway to the Inland Coast:The Story of the Carquinez Strait, (Sacramento: Carquinez Strait Preservation Trust, 1996), 55.