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Charles Todd at the recording machine

[Detail] Charles Todd at the recording machine

Primary Source Set A: Working Women in the 1930's

Packinghouse workers

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NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Packinghouse Workers is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

{excerpt begins}

Packinghouse worker
Marge Paca, 24 years old
Irish, married to a Pole union member

Betty Burke

June 15, 1939

Text of Interview

The meat specialties, that is about the coldest place in the yards. That's where they prepare medicinal extracts from meats, for hospitals, I guess. Anyway, they have a room there that's 60 degrees below zero. Nobody is supposed to stay there longer than 3 minutes, but some of the men go in there for 15 minutes at a time.

I used to have to pack the brains in cans. They would be frozen stiff and my nails would lift right up off my fingers handling them. It's always wet there and very, very cold. I had to wear two and three pairs of woolen stockings, 2 pairs of underwear, a couple of woolen skirts and all the sweaters I had, and on top of that I had to wear a white uniform. My own. But I couldn't stand it there, it was so cold. It's easy to get pneumonia in a place like that.

In cleaning brains you have to keep your hands in ice cold water and pick out the blood clots. They have the most sickening odor. Cleaning tripe, though, that's the limit. Rotten, yellow stuff, all decayed, it just stank like hell! I did that for a few weeks.

Then I worked in the sausage department. In the domestic sausage. We'd have to do the pork sausages in the cooler. Sometimes we wouldn't be told what kind of sausage we'd have to work on and then when we'd come to work they'd say 'pork for you' and we'd have to throw any dirty old rags we could pick up around our shoulders and go to work in that icebox. If they had any sense or consideration for the girls they could let them know ahead of time so that girls could come prepared with enough clothes.

In summer sausage, they stuff very big sausages there. That's very heavy work. A stick of sausage weighs 200 pounds, five or six sausages on a stick. They have women doing that. It's a strong man's job and no woman should be doing that work. The young girls just can't, so they have the older ladies, and it's a crime to see the way they struggle with it. On that job I lost 27 pounds in three months. That was enough for me. It's a strain on your heart, too. Women got ruptured. They pick the strongest women, big husky ones, you should see the muscles on them, but they can't keep it up. It's horses' labor.

In chipped beef the work in much easier. You can make better money, too, but the rate has to be topped, and it's very, very fast work.

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  • What kind of work did Marge Paca do? How would you describe her working conditions? How do you think this kind of work has changed since the 1930s?
  • What did Marge think about forcing women to work in the summer sausage department? Do you agree with her views? Why or why not?
  • Marge says that in the chipped beef department, "the rate has to be topped." This means that workers were paid more money if they could produce more than a certain amount per hour. What would be the advantages of being paid according to what was produced, rather than strictly by the hour? What would be the disadvantages?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.