The Los Angeles Maritime Museum documents the history of the Port of Los Angeles through exhibits, collections, and educational programs. A significant part of this history focuses on how the local residents built the harbor into the country’s most successful fishing port.
The exhibit “Caught, Canned, and Eaten” is the result of years of research and collecting on the part of the museum’s staff and volunteers. Retired fishermen, cannery workers, union leaders, and cannery executives generously provided their photographs, artifacts, oral histories, and financial support. In addition to the artifacts and videos available to view in the exhibit, archival records are accessible for research in the museum’s research library.
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by a seven-foot high tile mural featuring the five types of tuna (Bluefin, albacore, yellowfin, skipjack, and bonito) that were once plentiful in Southern California waters. The mural was originally installed outside the entrance of the Van Camp Seafood Company on Terminal Island. When the cannery closed in the late 1980s, the mural was donated to the museum. The wavy kelp patterns on the mural’s edges inspired the graphic design that is repeated throughout the exhibit.
The first section of the exhibit explains the techniques of catching tuna, sardines, and mackerel. Here, visitors can learn about the purse seine boats (whose nets encircled the fish as if in a drawstring purse), how fishermen pulled in large tuna while working on a bait boat with a pole and barbed hook, and the importance of using and maintaining the right kind of net. A video shows the Frankie Boy (under the command of Captain Frank Iacono) searching for sardines in the dark of night.
Since most of the museum’s visitors are not from a fishing background, the presentation is not highly technical, but is designed as an introduction to this important industry. For example, while most visitors are familiar with StarKist and Chicken of the Sea, most do not know that those two multi-national companies originated on Terminal Island. Immigrant families from the former Yugoslavia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines comprised most of the labor force on the boats and in the canneries. Through hard work and skills acquired in their native countries, the fishermen and cannery workers were responsible for catching and processing seafood for a worldwide customer base. The fact that San Pedro’s L.A. Harbor was the leading fishing port in the nation well into the 1950s (outranking even Gloucester, Massachusetts) comes as surprising news.
The second section of the exhibit focuses primarily on the women who worked in two-dozen canneries, cleaning and packing fish around the clock. One real-life example was 15-year old Domenica “Minnie” Lavarini, whose family immigrated to the United States from Italy. Minnie was sent to work for French Sardine (later Star-Kist) until she left to marry and raise a family. It was typical for immigrant families to rely on their children to help supplement the family income.
Female cannery workers wore the required white nurse uniform and cap. Prior to World War I, most Americans did not regularly eat canned food. Cannery owners believed that a nurse uniform would help convey the belief that canned food was healthy and hygienic. Several oversized murals depict photos of the workforce, and often visitors are happy to discover the face of a close friend or relative among the
“cannery nurses” in the crowd.
How were brands marketed in the days before social media? Prior to memes and hashtags, canneries found creative ways to get their logos into the consumers’ homes. Items such as recipes, glasses, watches, a phone, jewelry, even toys bear the images of Charlie the Tuna or the Chicken of the Sea mermaid. This section of the exhibit includes an opportunity to view classic commercials starring Charlie the Tuna.
The Fiesta was an annual celebration intended to celebrate and give thanks for the success of the fishing fleet. The Fiesta usually took place in the fall, between the end of tuna season and the beginning of sardine season. For one magical weekend a year, sturdy workboats were transformed into colorful floats, and sailed in parade formation for the enjoyment of hundreds of thousands of cheering spectators. The highlight of the weekend was the Blessing of the Fleet. Eventually, rising costs, labor disputes, increased commercialism and a lawsuit protesting the religious ceremony made it difficult for organizers to continue the Fiesta. There were no fiestas between 1973 and 1980, though there were later attempts to revive the event.
The Fiesta portion of the exhibit includes trophies and souvenirs owned by Japanese American fisherman, Frank Manaka. Manaka was one of the few Japanese fishermen to return to the harbor after World War II. His boat, Western Explorer, won several Fiesta awards. In the days following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were viewed with suspicion and those on the west coast were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to internment camps. (Be sure to visit the Museum’s special exhibit,
“Taminaru: A Day in the Life of a Japanese American Fishing Village” to learn more about these former residents of Terminal Island.)
DECLINE OF THE INDUSTRY
Despite enjoying great success, the fishing fleet and cannery operations diminished greatly as the 20th century progressed. Among the factors were the relocation of canneries overseas, imported fish, the seizure of American boats by Latin American countries, rising insurance rates and increasing regulations, the cyclical nature of fish, and the effects of large-scale harvests on the environment. One of the last attempts to revive the industry happened in 1987, when the Fishermen’s Cooperative Association purchased a former Star-Kist plant on Terminal Island. Operating as “United Food Processors,” this canning operation employed approximately 200 workers, before filing for bankruptcy in 1992.
COLLECTING FOR THE FUTURE
When the exhibit first opened more than a decade ago, one wall was intentionally left blank in anticipation of future donations of artifacts. In 2010, the museum was honored to receive the neon sign from Canetti’s Seafood Grotto, along with the famous “Table #1” and four chairs. This generous gift from the Canetti family is a testament to the enjoyment of time spent with family and friends telling tall tales after a hard day of work.
The museum continues to seek donations of artifacts and photographs to help enhance the exhibit and inspire future research. To learn more, contact the museum’s archivist, Derek Spinei, at (310) 548-7618, ext. 215.
The Los Angeles Maritime Museum is located at 600 Sampson Way (Berth 84); The museum will close for a two-year renovation project, starting in July. For more information, visit lamaritimemuseum.org.