Artifact of the Day · Caulkers' Houses · Small Finds, BigStories · Uncategorized

Small Finds, Big Stories: Pickers’ Check

This artifact was found on the ground surface at the Caulkers’ Houses following the removal of an addition behind #614 S. Wolfe Street. It’s not entirely clear when the addition was built, but based on Sanborn maps and a handful of architectural clues, it’s estimated that it was added in the first decade of the 20th century. The addition was removed as part of the stabilization of the Caulkers’ Houses, and was supervised by an archaeologist (our very own Jason Shellenhamer!) to ensure that any archaeological deposits protected beneath the poured concrete were undisturbed by the demolition. This item was found by a recent visitor, and was responsibly incorporated into the existing collection of artifacts as a surface find.

Pickers’ check found on ground surface behind #614 S. Wolfe Street. For an object the size of a quarter, it has a lot to tell us!

This small brass token represents the confluence of several major trends and events in the Baltimore area from the end of the Civil War through the early 20th century. First, there’s…well, the end of the Civil War, which meant that people who were formerly enslaved and forced to work on farms were free to go elsewhere, which many of them did. At the same time, there were many new immigrants arriving in Baltimore, so the demand for produce was booming even as the supply of labor was dwindling. By the 1870s, farmers in the counties surrounding Baltimore City started recruiting newly arrived city dwellers from Baltimore to pick the produce.

The workers weren’t paid in cash, however; they were paid in pickers’ checks like the artifact recently found behind 614 S. Wolfe Street. Pickers’ checks were the size of a coin, but relatively plain, bearing only the hand-stamped initials of the farmer and a number, which represented a quantity of picking that translated, more or less, to money. While other types of tokens (like those offered by merchants or stores, for example) might include a little more information for purposes of advertising, pickers’ checks were entirely utilitarian, although they did sometimes vary in shape to reflect the different kinds of crops being harvested – their shapes were specific to different types of produce. One commonality noted by the Anne Arrundell Historical Society (http://www.aachs.org/) based on their extensive collection is that pickers’ checks tend to be round with scalloped edges for strawberries, round for peas, and octagonal for beans.

In other states and other parts of Maryland, pickers’ checks were seldom made of metal; they were more commonly made of pressed cardboard, or were simply a paper ticket or punchcard. The area surrounding Baltimore, and especially Anne Arundel County, appears to have been alone in the predominance of metal (brass, aluminum, iron, tin, and even bronze pickers’ checks have been found here). A few farmers had the skills to make their own pickers’ checks, but most purchased them from manufacturers in Baltimore.

An article in the Evening Capital dated May 13, 1910, describes a typical springtime scene during the picking season:

Riding up and down the W.B.&A. electric road or the Short Line, the traveler between Annapolis and Baltimore, gazing out the car window, sees a colony of men, women, and children dotting the fields here and there and everywhere.

All seem busy with their work. “What does it mean?” asks a fellow passenger. “What are they doing?” queries someone else nearby. It is the annual migration of strawberry pickers, and soon that of the pea pickers will begin. Once a year, the strawberry pickers come to the fields of Anne Arundel County from East Baltimore. Two horse wagons in long strings are seen crossing Light Street Bridge, and Harman’s Bridge, loaded down with whole families and such of their worldly goods as will be needed for a sojourn of four to eight weeks in the country.

Those who go to the country to pick the strawberry, pea, and bean crops, as well as to do other work in the truckers’ rush season, are mainly Poles and Bohemians. They come mainly from that section of Baltimore adjacent to Fell’s Point.

From 1906 until 1912, the house at 614 S. Wolfe Street was owned and occupied by Walentz and Jozefa Majerowicz. Walentz and Jozefa arrived in the country from Poland in about 1896. They were the parents of 10 children, 9 of whom were living in 1910. In 1910, six of the children lived at home: daughters Anastasya (age 21) and Stanistava (age 12) and sons Makeymiljan (age 20), Walentz (age 14), Francissek (age 10), and Jan (age 4). The four youngest children were born in Maryland, the rest were born in Poland. Anastasya and Walentz worked in a factory, and Makeymiljan is listed in the census as a driver. In city directories, Walentz, Jozefa, and the older children are described variously as laborers, drivers, factory workers, and by 1910, Walentz was listed in the census as a stevedore. It’s entirely possible that some or all of the family also spent some springs and summers working on the truck farms of Anne Arundel County.

So what did this kind of work look like? Lewis Hine (1874-1940), an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), documented the working and living conditions of children in the United States between 1908 and 1924, and visited the farms of Anne Arundel County during this time.

Wagons awaiting workers in Fell’s Point, 1910. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Fully loaded wagons ready to go on Wolfe Street, 1910. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Slebzak family of Baltimore working at Bottomley Farm, 1909. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Shanties and cooking shacks at the Bottomley Farm, 1909. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Numerous newspaper accounts from around the turn of the 20th century make this work sound almost idyllic.

The Evening Capital, May 21, 1886: Whole families settle in the district, with their furniture and cooking utensils, finding shelter in barns and other outhouses belonging to the truck farmers. They make good wages and live happy, jolly, Bohemian lives during the season.

Another article in the Evening Capital in 1892: The work is eagerly sought and is regarded by many as a big frolic.

The actual conditions were far from ideal. Lewis Hines provided a brief report to the NCLC (you can read it at the Library of Congress right here).  As noted in Hine’s reports to the NCLC, pickers’ checks were the equivalent of company scrip, and could only be spent or redeemed on the farm and nearby businesses who chose to honor them as currency.


Will Mumford, author of Strawberries, Peas and Beans, a book about truck farming in Anne Arundel County (which we recommend if you’d like to learn more on this subject), includes an extensive inventory of the farmers’ initials commonly found on pickers’ checks, along with other diagnostic features of the tokens. We couldn’t find an “L.F.” in the inventory, so we’re not sure exactly where this token came from. If you have a clue, please let us know!

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