Canning shellfish developed as an industry along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore around the early 1900s when equipment, 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.
Small sheds adjacent to wharves where shellfish were unloaded. But as the industry became more profitable, small canning “factories” popped up along the shoreline. More often than not, clams were purchased by wholesalers, canned at these factories, and labeled as their own brand.
Between 1943 and 1953 at least five clam factories operated along the Eastern Shore between Petpeswick and Clam Harbour, and there were many more around the province. These factories were more modern than kitchen canneries, and produced a product far superior to any fishing camp engaged in small scale canning on the islands offshore. The clam factory in Clam Harbour, for example, had a 3200 square foot main processing facility, a smokehouse, and a cookhouse with rooms upstairs for the crew.
For diggers they pay could be quite good, as they typically earned 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.
“You got so much a pound for shucking. They’d come and they dump a hod of clams in front of you to be shucked. Well you get that shucked you got 50 cents for shucking it, and then you got about around seven—anywhere from seven to nine [or] ten—cents a pound for shucking them besides. That was your pay. I used to work me butt off for twenty dollars a week . . . Your hands used to be [so] sore that in the morning you could hardly hold your glass of milk.”
Some companies dipped their catch in warm water to assist shuckers, but most claimed it spoiled the taste and left the painful task to knife and hand alone.
Women were hired as shuckers and cooks for the crew, while girls often as young as 15 removed bones from the steamed fish before it was canned.
Clam factories are remembered for putting bread and butter on the table for many families, but their tenure on the Eastern Shore was brief. The large number of these enterprises in such a small area led to overharvesting and the eventual closure of factories that could no longer obtain enough shellfish to make their operations profitable.