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Women share stories of friendship from their time at Hawaiʻi pineapple canneries

pineapple cannery labor 1928 national archives
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Young women work in a pineapple cannery in Hawaiʻi on Nov. 20, 1928.

It’s been 115 years since James Dole moved his pineapple canning operations to Honolulu — and more than 30 years since it closed. But you can still hear the stories of those who worked there, thanks to the Center for Oral History at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

In HPR's continuing partnership focusing on life stories of resilience in Hawaiʻi, here are the stories of two women who worked at the cannery and were interviewed in 1979. Ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan introduces Elizabeth Matthews and Margaret Chang.

Through the 1970s, pineapple employed thousands of women, some in the fields, but most in the canneries as trimmers and packers. In the summers, thousands of high school students got their first jobs as seasonal pine workers. Though the work was tedious and exhausting, the workers found ways to have fun and form enduring friendships.

Starting in 1927 at age 15, Elizabeth Matthews worked at Hawaiian Pineapple Company every summer for 10 years as a packer. In 1946, she worked as an intermittent and then a forelady until she retired in 1977. She was born in Honolulu in 1912.

Interviewer Vivien Lee, 1979: What would you say you gained from all your years at the cannery?

Matthews: I was satisfied with it and the surroundings, working conditions. Plus I made new friends. Even though I had my old friends, I made new friends. Whereever I go – I donʻt care where – the workers, even though they were real young, they came, they still remember me.

Lee: Would you say that making friends was the best part of working?

Matthews: Yes, meeting new friends and working together with them and then teaching them something, you know, that they never experience. You know, the teaching and being nice to them. We had foreladies called in the office for getting rough with the girls and boys, you know, but I never had that.

Matthews: Yeah, I enjoyed my years working and Iʻm going to one of my girlʻs retirement the end of this month. I think she makes 25 years.

Lee: So even though you're retired now, you still see some of your old workers?

Matthews: Yeah, and we have a Hawaiian club there. I think I joined 1968 but we started 1962 and Iʻm still in that Hawaiian club.

Margaret Chang worked in different positions in Hawaiʻi’s pineapple canneries over the course of 48 years. She was born in Waialua on Oʻahu in 1909.

Interviewer Michiko Kodama, 1979: You told me that you stopped school at the eighth grade. You went to work in 1925 at CPC [California Packing Corporation] for two summers as a packer. Why did you decide to go to work, and why to CPC and not another cannery?

Chang: At that time, most of these kids during summer went to work at the cannery. My friends went to work at CPC, and they told me it’s lots easy, go get into work at CPC so I just went with my friends.

Kodama: Were there any other places that young people like yourself could work at that time?

Chang: I don't think so. Not that I know of. It was easy, and you worked with your friends, and you have some tray boys that would come around, and we'd have lot of fun. But I really enjoyed working there because the work wasn't strenuous.

Kodama: When you look back now on your whole pineapple life, your pineapple career, what do you think?

Chang: You learn quite a bit about people. You come in contact with all different people. Same thing like when you travel. You go to certain place, and you see how they live and how they work. You see all people living all different ways. You learn lot of things — what you cannot learn in books. That’s why I say I only went to the eighth grade but I think I can compete with other kids that have more education.

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This collaboration is supported by the SHARP Initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.

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