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Annals of work: The hide trade on the California coast, 1835
Richard Henry Dana caught measles during his junior year at Harvard, and the illness affected his eyes. Doctors prescribed a break from study, indeed from reading of any kind. To avoid temptation, Dana signed on with the merchant ship Pilgrim, which left Boston in the summer of 1834, bound for the coast of California, then part of Mexico. The chief export of California was cowhides, and Dana found himself loading the processed skins by the hundreds onto the ship.
The hides are always brought down dry, or they would not be received. When they are taken from the animal, they have holes cut in the ends and are staked out, and thus dried in the sun without shrinking. They are then doubled once, lengthwise, with the hair side usually in, and sent down, upon mules or in carts, and piled above highwater mark; and then we take them upon our heads, one at a time, or two, if they are small, and wade out with them and throw them into the boat, which as there are no wharves, we usually kept anchored by a small kedge, or keelek, just outside of the surf.
We all provided ourselves with thick Scotch caps, which would be soft to the head, and at the same time protect it; for we soon found that however it might look or feel at first, the “head-work” was the only system for California. For besides that the seas, breaking high, often obliged us to carry the hides so, in order to keep them dry, we found that, as they were very large and heavy, and nearly as stiff as boards, it was the only way that we could carry them with any convenience to ourselves.
Some of the crew tried other expedients, saying that they looked too much like West India negroes; but they all came to it at last. The great art is in getting them on the head. We had to take them from the ground, and as they were often very heavy, and as wide as the arms could stretch and easily taken by the wind, we used to have some trouble with them. I have often been laughed at myself, and joined in laughing at others, pitching themselves down in the sand, trying to swing a large hide upon their heads, or nearly blown over with one in a little gust of wind.
The captain made it harder for us, by telling us that it was “California fashion” to carry two on the head at a time; and as he insisted upon it, and we did not wish to be outdone by other vessels, we carried two for the first few months; but after falling in with a few other “hide-droghers,” and finding that they carried only one at a time we “knocked off” the extra one, and thus made our duty somewhat easier.
After we had got our heads used to the weight, and had learned the true California style of tossing a hide, we could carry off two or three hundred in a short time, without much trouble; but it was always wet work, and, if the beach was stony, bad for our feet; for we, of course, always went barefooted on this duty, as no shoes could stand such constant wetting with salt water. Then, too, we had a long pull of three miles, with a loaded boat, which often took a couple of hours.
Transporting cowhides was only part of Dana’s job. He remained a merchant seaman, with all the duties the position entailed.
We had now got well settled down into our harbor duties, which, as they are a good deal different from those at sea, it may be well enough to describe. In the first place, all hands are called at daylight, or rather—especially if the days are short—before daylight, as soon as the first grey of the morning.
The cook makes his fire in the galley; the steward goes about his work in the cabin; and the crew rig the head pump and wash down the decks. The chief mate is always on deck, but takes no active part, all the duty coming upon the second mate, who has to roll up his trousers and paddle about decks barefooted, like the rest of the crew. The washing, swabbing, squilgeeing, etc., lasts, or is made to last, until eight o'clock, when breakfast is ordered, fore and aft.
After breakfast, for which half an hour is allowed, the boats are lowered down and made fast astern, or out to the swinging booms, by geswarps, and the crew are turned-to upon their day's work.
This is various, and its character depends upon circumstances. There is always more or less of boating, in small boats; and if heavy goods are to be taken ashore, or hides are brought down to the beach for us, then all hands are sent ashore with an officer in the long boat. Then there is always a good deal to be done in the hold: goods to be broken out; and cargo to be shifted, to make room for hides, or to keep the trim of the vessel.
In addition to this, the usual work upon the rigging must be done. There is a good deal of the latter kind of work which can only be done when the vessel is in port—and then everything must be kept taut and in good order; spun-yarn made; chafing gear repaired; and all the other ordinary work.
The great difference between sea and harbor duty is in the division of time. Instead of having a watch on deck and a watch below, as at sea, all hands are at work together, except at meal times, from daylight till dark; and at night an “anchor-watch” is kept, which consists of only two at a time; the whole crew taking turns.
An hour is allowed for dinner, and at dark, the decks are cleared up; the boats hoisted; supper ordered; and at eight, the lights put out, except in the binnacle, where the glass stands; and the anchor-watch is set. Thus, when at anchor, the crew have more time at night (standing watch only about two hours), but have no time to themselves in the day; so that reading, mending clothes, etc., has to be put off until Sunday, which is usually given.
Some religious captains give their crews Saturday afternoons to do their washing and mending in, so that they may have their Sundays free. This is a good arrangement, and does much toward creating the preference sailors usually show for religious vessels.
We were well satisfied if we got Sunday to ourselves, for, if any hides came down on that day, as was often the case when they were brought from a distance, we were obliged to bring them off, which usually took half a day; and as we now lived on fresh beef, and ate one bullock a week, the animal was almost always brought down on Sunday, and we had to go ashore, kill it, dress it, and bring it aboard, which was another interruption.
Then, too, our common day's work was protracted and made more fatiguing by hides coming down late in the afternoon, which sometimes kept us at work in the surf by star-light, with the prospect of pulling on board, and stowing them all away, before supper.
From Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast