Scene of crabpickers in St. Michaels by Ruth Starr Rose. Lithograph on paper. Collections of Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
This 1932 lithograph by R.S. Rose is one of the earliest images accessioned to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s collections when it was founded in 1965. It is also one of our most iconic. Depicting a scene of crab pickers hard at work in a St Michaels packing house, it reflects ordinary Eastern Shore summer piecework of the early 20th century- a part of Chesapeake life that has almost completely disappeared from the Bay’s small waterfront towns .
These are women who would have known each other- they lived in the same neighborhood, attended the same church, and sang together in the same choir. Their children went to school together, and often, would accompany their mothers to the packing house where they’d earn pocket money cracking claws. That sense of familiarity, of friendly comfort, is communicated in relaxed postures and slight smiles of the pickers. A woman down the picking line sings as she works- a way to make the day go faster, perhaps.
Crab picking is messy, smelly work, but from the serenity of the light drifting through the square windows and the immaculate white of the women’s light summer clothing, this picture conveys not the drudgery that picking can be but the almost spiritual atmosphere of community.
Rose probably based this scene on the local Coulbourne and Jewett packing house (today part of the Maritime Museum’s 18-acre campus) where a record 1 million pounds of crab meat were packed for 5 consecutive years. Over 200 pickers would line both sides of long tables piled with towers of steamed blue crabs, their hands flying as they dislodged the plump white meat. Experienced pickers could average 30 pounds a day, for seven days a week, throughout the summer and early fall.
Scene like this were not uncommon in St Michaels in the 1930’s, but a white woman artist documenting them during the height of the Jim Crow era certainly was. Ruth Starr Rose had moved to a nearby community, Tunis Mills, as a young woman and had been deeply impacted by the African-Americans she came to know through church services and daily community activities. She became lifelong friends with members of the black community and as she became an established artist she frequently depicted ordinary events from their daily lives imbued with a deep strength, familiarity and humanity.