Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hops Picking an Early Form of Agritourism?

We've been wondering about the context and role of the hop picking portrait. The Salem online history entry for "hops" says that hops harvest brought "influx of many migrant workers into the areas surrounding Salem." This brings to mind a very particular form of labor.

So how did hops picking portraiture fit into this way of organizing labor and the incomes of these laborers?

We see the words "migrant workers" and think of today's migrant farmworkers. Even setting aside the question of ethnicity, we interpreted this to mean hops were picked mainly by people whose livelihoods depended on the hard labor of picking and on moving from area to area as different crops matured. We read and interpreted scenes like this tent and camp image from 1939 to be the temporary housing of these migrant workers.

This model may be accurate, but there's another possibility for these tents and camps. It's become clear that there were also a substantial number of people who picked hops for entertainment, recreation, or supplementary income. It may be possible, in fact, to think of hops picking as an early form of agritourism.

At top is a 1903 ad from the Salem Woollen Mills (C.P. Bishop was Mayor at this time) for hop picking apparel that makes explicit the ways that hop picking was recreational.
A few more days and it's "Off to the hop yards." All the paraphernalia of camp life must be gathered together in readiness for this annual combination of work and recreation.
It also lists "Those Queer Mexican Hats" and "golf shirts" as things a hop picker might want.

The audience for this ad is not the group of people who are dependent on agriculture for their sole income. The audience is people who go to pick hops for entertainment!

This notice of a boxing match held in a hops yard also in 1903 shows just how entertaining hops picking could get!

Marion County Puts up First Class Prize Fight

Women and Babies are Permitted to Enjoy to the Full the Delightful Social Function

At the Krebs Bros. hop yard last night, a large crowd was gathered, including many sports from Salem and Portland, to witness a prize fight between Keeny of Albina and an unknown from Grants Pass. Before the main event of the evening several preliminary bouts were pulled off, local lights figuring in the battles...[description of the bout ensues]...It is reported that among the spectators were a number of women, some of them with babies in their arms.
People traveled to the hops fields for the entertainments. This doesn't sound too far from the concerts and dinners held at wineries today.

In this context of camping, recreation, and entertainment, it's not difficult to understand why photographers, both amateur and professional, might also camp and take photos. Luc Sante has written about the ways postcards during this time were used to communicate and share experiences, especially for those outside of large cities. The hops picking portrait surely exists in a rich network of exchanges at the hop yard and later ones among distant friends and family.

Hops picking in the early 20th century possibly marks a very interesting transitional moment, it seems. Because hops could be dried, baled, and sold in Europe and the east coast as a commodity, the scale of hops agriculture probably dwarfed the scale of other local farming, which would participate in a smaller local foodshed. So hops picking needed large hordes of people to descend on the fields. For a short period in the early 20th century, it seems that agricultural labor might have been respectable and fun, an activity available to any class of person without loss of status. This is really striking and we should pause to think about it a moment, as this particular form of mobilizing labor appears to stand chronologically in between the slave labor used for cotton, and the non-resident migrant labor industrialized farming uses today.

We aren't at all versed in the history of agricultural labor, which really situates hops growing in the context of international commodities, national and international economies, large population movements (think "dust bowl" and the "Okies" as well as the forced displacement of slave laborers) - and bunch of other big picture stuff. That's a big project, one we probably won't take up. Do any readers know more about this? Maybe this is well-written about elsewhere.

In any case, this glimpse at a social history of hops picking suggests it was a really interesting border situation, where lots of different people and economic interests mingled. Sounds like a rich stew to us!

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