The canning of shellfish, such as clams, lobster, crab, and oysters, developed as an industry around the early 1900s when equipment, canning materials, and a general knowledge of the science of canning coincided with a demand for canned goods. Canned shellfish was an appealing product as it came close to the taste of fresh seafood, and it was easy to use. In Nova Scotia, during the early 1900s, canning was often done in “kitchen canneries” such as a small shed adjacent to the wharf or site where the shellfish were landed.
On the Eastern Shore, there were many small canning “factories” that produced canned shellfish – primarily lobster and clam. The quality of their products ranged, and were probably bought by wholesalers who labeled them as their own brands. In the 1930s, fishing camps on the islands offshore were involved in small scale canning. The clam and lobster factories of the 1940s were more modern in their approach and produced a superior product shipped in barrels of ice, which were cut from a local lake. Between 1943 and 1953, it is estimated that there were at least five clam factories operating along the Eastern Shore between Petpeswick and Clam Harbour. There were certainly many more operating around the province. Ostrea Lake had two clam factories operating within 2 km of each other.
These factories had a significant impact on the local economy with each employing about 20 people as diggers, steamers, shuckers, and packers. For the diggers, the pay could be quite good, earning twenty-five cents a basket or “hod.” A good clam digger could dig up to 20 hods in a tide – excellent pay compared to the dollar a day men earned in the woods. Local women were employed as shuckers because of their nimble fingers and the speed with which they could remove the clam meat from the shell. Women were also employed as cooks for the crew, and girls as young as 15 were hired to do jobs such as removing the bones from the steamed fish before it was canned. Some factories, such as the Clam Harbour factory, steamed and canned fish, lobster, and smoked herring in addition to clams. The ovens or steamers were heated with wood cut locally.
While the factories are remembered as bringing a boom to the local economy, their tenure was brief. The large number of factories in such a small area led to over-harvesting and the factories eventually closed, as they could not obtain enough shellfish to make the operation profitable.
In the attached video, a former clam factory employee recounts his experiences shucking clams in the late 1940s and early 1950s.