No mallets allowed

Do you use a mallet to open your blue crab claws or carapace? Do you wield that sucker like a sledgehammer, crushing those pincers until you get to the delicate meat inside, take-no-prisoners-style?

Well, you could probably use a few lessons from these ladies: professional crab pickers employed at the J.M. Clayton packing house in Cambridge, Maryland.


                J.M. Clayton Crab Picking Facility from Jason Lenhart on Vimeo.

Of course, they’re fast. So fast it can be hard to really grasp exactly what they’re doing. Since crab pickers are paid by the pound, not the hour, precision speed picking is the goal. With a sharp crab knife pinched between thumb and first knuckle, they divide white flesh from shell in a repeated rocking motion, each swipe prizing morsels from the frame.

The top shells come off first, exposing the compartmentalized interior of the crab. Next, the legs are pried off the body and discarded, with only claws retained for later extraction by claw crackers (a job that in the pre-labor law past was often done by children). Then the crabmeat is efficiently divorced from its pearly niche, and separated out into lump, special, backfin, claw, and regular. It’s said that women are the best at this fine picking work, due to their small, dexterous hands, and the photos that we have bear testimony that this is no new idea.


These African-American crab pickers from Crisfield, Maryland ca. 1930 represented the ‘average’ seasonal picker in the Chesapeake during early 20th century. As the cost of labor has increased, and alternative occupational opportunities (often with regular hours and steady pay) for African-American women have grown, the profile of today’s crab pickers has expanded to include migrant workers from Central America and Mexico here on H-2B visas.

These migrant crab pickers are essential to the continuing existence of the crab packing industry in Maryland, an iconic economy that’s dwindled significantly, with serious labor shortages, over the last 50 years. But as the clip below explains, there is controversy over the wages and working conditions for these migrant pickers. The situation came to a head in 2011, when a legislated mid-summer wage hike intended to improve the income for pickers threatened to shut down the industry.


Looking ahead to the summer of 2012, biologists are optimistic about the population of crabs in the Bay, which is good news to the watermen and the packing houses that process the blue crabs they catch. (Read more about the 'crab forecast’ in this Baltimore Sun article from February: So, if all goes well this spring, then in J.M. Clayton and other crab packing houses throughout the Chesapeake will be rows of women from far beyond the Chesapeake, nimbly taking knife to shell, lump to container, all summer long. All without a single mallet.

Want to learn more about crab picking in Maryland? Here at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, we have a wonderful exhibit full of objects and stories from the Maryland Crabmeat Company of Crisfield, Maryland, one of the hundred of crab packing houses that’s closed its doors over the last 50 years.

Can’t make it to St. Michaels? Check out the links below to explore the topic in more detail:

An in-depth look at modern migrant crab pickers in Maryland:

On the globalization of the crabmeat industry-

On the struggling Chesapeake crab industry-

On crab management in the Chesapeake-