Butchering Salmon – Interior of a Canning Establishment, Astoria, Oragon

Yellow and faded, stereo view photos of the early 20th century are like old postcards. They are also like calling cards from a forgotten era. The side by side double images confound modern viewers in an unexpected way. The fact they must be viewed with an instrument in order to visualize a three dimensional image must be strange yet familiar.

On the left margin of the card it identifies the Keystone View Company as the manufacturer and publisher, copyright 1904 by B. L. Singloy. On the right margin, it calls to our attention that Keystone had offices in Meadville, Pa., St. Louis, Mo., San Francisco, Cal., Toronto, Can., New York, N.Y., London, England. At the time, Keystone was the largest manufacturer and publisher of stereo cards and instruments in the world.

Many times, the images presented are intended to serve several purposes: entertaining, informative and even educational. In this particular case, on the back of the card, we have the following descriptions:

“This part of the salmon industry is more interesting and instructive to the visitor than it is pleasant or enjoyable. The shores of the Columbia above and below Astoria are lined with great establishments for cutting and canning salmon and shipping the product to all parts of the world. About 5,000 persons are employed during the fishing and canning season.”

“The butchers are Chinese. At some of the fisheries the tables project over the water and the offal is pushed into the river the moment it is removed from the fish. The Chinamen are very flexterous with their keen blades, and dispatch a great deal of work on a day. Many of them soon earn enough to make them prosperous men according to Chinese standards, and then they return to China to enjoy their fortunes. Others, are besotted with opium, and even the love of country has been eaten out of them by the dreadful drug, leaving only the love of the doomful pipe.”

This is one of the most striking images of Chinese butchers working inside salmon canneries. At least some of the butchers looked up and looked in the direction of the camera. The one Chinese at right was of medium height and weight, but stoic and confident. The size of the fish did not seem to faze him. He would be able to cut and clean this monster fish in a matter of minutes. The trough collected fish waste and dumped them right into the river. The slots in the floor suggest that the cannery was built right over the river water.

On the surface, the postscripts appear to offer objective and fair descriptions of Chinese butchers at the turn of the 20th Century. However, consciously or unconsciously, it reflected the societal attitudes and racial bias of the time. It is certainly disputable how widespread was the use of opium among Chinese cannery workers. Also it failed to mention that the habit forming drug was forced onto China in huge quantities in the 19th Century by British and American merchants and through military invasions.

It would be over demanding of a stereo view photo to carry all of the massages that meet our contemporary sensibilities. We are simply glad that they are truthful records of the time.

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