My mother’s mother – Anna Potter Jones – spent her entire 84 years in the same house at 2729 Dillon Street in Canton. She was born in the house by midwife and in 1996 had a fatal heart attack there.
It was a tiny house and, though spotless, would not have been out of place in the East End of Dickens’ London. It has been out of the family since her death and is now one of the smaller jewels of new Canton. In the middle room, dominated by her invalid husband Willie’s hospital bed, a black and white TV stood where a coal stove once did.
On that TV, I watched Oriole ball games with Pop when the Birds were great, “Picture for a Sunday Afternoon” (always Westerns), a Kennedy press conference during the Cuban Missile Crisis and, in the early 70s, marches and protests observing International Women’s Day on March 8.
My grandmother – a year old when German Communist Clara Zetkin founded International Women’s Day in 1910 – didn’t quite understand what the events were about.
“Us poor women been working all our lives,” she said of her neighbors and relatives in the Polish waterfront colony that was old Canton. “Nobody ever gave us a parade.”
With the death of her mother (the former Catherine Kruzla) from cancer when she was nine, Anna Potter (originally Poter, a name from the Polish/Austrian region of Galicia), her education ended after the third grade and hard work became her abiding companion. Her father – Joseph Poter – would die when she was 22 in an accident involving acid used to clean storage tanks at the Standard Oil refinery south of Boston Street.
That was March of 1933. In December of the following year, my mother Gloria was born, the last of Anna’s three children. Not long after, in the depths of the Great Depression, a knock came to the door, a portal preserved since her death in my home a mile east in Greektown.
The man was the manager of an open air, produce processing “packing house,” around the corner on Binney Street owned by the Roberts Brothers, now the site of an Ace Hardware store. The man needed workers and “the call” for help had gone out.
“I can’t,” Anna replied, my mother at the hem of her skirt. “I have a young child.”
In those long-ago, “whatever it takes to get the job done” days, the man said, “Bring her with you.”
Jack Burkert is an educator with the Baltimore Museum of Industry, where vintage canning equipment is on display. “In order to get the woman,” said Burkert, “they had to allow the kid.” And plenty of women – all white, predominantly descendants of Eastern Europe – answered the call.
In 1992, when I first documented my grandmother’s “packin’ house” days in the Baltimore Sun (I can still hear her pronouncing the word, accent on “pack,” a silent ‘g’), a woman named Linda Gotner Gordon wrote a letter-to-the-editor to share her family’s experience.
“I too had a grandmother who lived on Dillon Street,” wrote Gordon from Ocean City. “…and although she ran her own business, Gonter’s Tavern, most of her female friends labored in packing houses.”
My mother’s memories of bean-snipping, tomato coring and strawberry capping daycare – at times they’d prep pineapples from Cuba for canning – are strewn with bushel baskets. “My mother would stack upside down baskets next to her on the line,” she recalled the other day. “I’d sit on them and play with my doll.”
The boss also made a sort of “castle” out of the baskets, she said, where she and the other kids ran around and made up games.
When mom was a bit older and could run the streets, she and her friends and cousins would sneak into the packing house (an open, wooden structure, a block long) and get inside of a rolling contraption – like a big metal hoop – used to clean beans fresh off the truck. By running in place, the “roller” would spin and the spot where her mother made a couple dollars for a 12-to-14 hour day became her playground.
“You worked,” said Burkert, “until the job was done.”
The last canning factory in Baltimore was a relatively small operation in Canton that processed Mrs. Manning’s hominy – a local favorite – until the product was sold in 1995 and moved to a factory on the Coan River in Virginia.
Employment improved for Anna, as it did for virtually every working person in Baltimore, with the advent of World War II. She joined “the needle trade,” which then meant something very different in Baltimore than it does today.
Though the 20th century garment trade in Baltimore was dominated by men’s clothing factories – the last, London Fog, closed in 2002 – there was a good amount of work for those making womens’ clothes as well.
During the war, Anna sewed burlap sandbags for the Continental Bag Company not far from her home. When the war ended, she joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, absorbed into the Service Employees International Union in 1995. The ILGWU had its roots in female-led New York sweatshop strikes of the early 1900s, including a pivotal one after the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 people, most of them women.
Anna worked throughout the 1950s and ’60s and, when I was a kid, liked to tell a funny story about how – when one of the workers blew their nose – it would be the color of whatever thread they were working with.
Her primary employer in these years was the Comfy Slipcover company on Pulaski Street in West Baltimore, to which she took the bus. In 1958, the year I was born, you could buy a slipcover for a half-size sofa at the May Company at Lexington and Howard streets for $9.99. She retired in 1971, a year before her husband died.
With Social Security and a modest union pension, she was able to enjoy nearly a quarter-century of comfort, eager to babysit great-grandchildren as she once did her grandchildren, going to the movies when the Grand and Patterson movies were still screening first-run shows and enjoying a crab cake platter at the old Eastern House in the Highlandtown Shopping District.
The Grand is now a library and the Patterson the Creative Alliance arts center. The Eastern House is a Hispanic restaurant and her youngest grandchild, my brother Victor, will be 50-years-old this year.
And all of the canneries and seamstress shops are gone. Her favorite quote?
“You’ve got to change with the times.”
Rafael Alvarez wrote this column to commemorate Women’s History Month. His new book – Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery – will be released in September by Cornell University Press. Alvarez can be reached via email@example.com