31 August 65 : Tomato picking torture! : San Francisco, California

This continues the letter dated 27th August 1965 which began:

Dear family,

Tuesday 31st August

San Francisco

I have just been into the Post Office and picked up my mail and had four letters from you for which I was very grateful. (I had the one you posted in error and it had a stamp on it – so some kind person must have put one on).

I was pleased to hear that you have been having such a good time and that your holiday was so successful. You seem from your letters to be in good spirits, especially as the wedding photos were so good, and also of course your visit to Fleet – and the film show there. I shall certainly look forward to a good look at those when I get home again.

Fancy old Nigel passing his A-levels – he’s not so daft after all!!

And it is great news about the leaky valve – and not having to rip up all that concrete. Fancy having such good weather for your holiday too – you certainly have been very lucky. Yes, I know the Jamaica Inn although I have never been in there.

At the moment, at this end, I (and Colin) am in great pain, and this is due to my experience in a Mexican work camp. I will explain. On Sunday we got a job – picking tomatoes, and arranged to start Monday morning. It was quite a nice camp – full of Mexicans and quite clean, we didn’t take their offer of accommodation, but we accepted the offer of all meals, to be deducted from our wages.

Everything seemed fine – we were to get 25 cents (1/9) per 40lbs ‘lug’ of tomatoes – and they reckon we could pick 100 lugs a day.


Tomato picking in America (Public domain photo, from Florida in 1947)


Well, we arose for breakfast at 5 a.m. (pause for hysterical laughter) and proceeded to the cookhouse to find that not one single person could speak English, and also that all the food was Mexican. We had the most odd breakfast (Colin had something that he thought was porridge – but turned out to be a mixture of herbs). Everything was very hot and spicy.

The Mexicans all around us seem to have a mania for raw eggs – some simply broke the egg and put it into their mouths, others beat them in a glass, or with milk, but the most amazing was the fellow opposite me who poured three eggs into his coffee, with sugar and milk, and drank it without a grimace!!!

I can’t really say I enjoyed that meal, but at least we didn’t have to cook it ourselves.

We were now ready for the fields – and in the back of a huge truck we charged down a dirt track, and when blinded by thick dust I nearly fell out of the back, and reduced all our co-workers to helpless laughter.


Mexican farm workers in America harvesting tomatoes – photo by OSU Special Collections & Archives, Wikimedia Commons


We climbed out and could see nothing but tomatoes as far as the eye could see. Owing to the labour shortage many tomatoes were overripe and rotten. These plants were not neatly propped up on sticks like at home, these were sprawled all over the ground and we had no alternative but to wade through them.

We set to picking (40lbs to a lug and only large green ones) and were given a ticket for each lug – which then had to be thrown over the side of a trailer.

By lunchtime things weren’t looking too good. We didn’t seem to have picked half as many as everyone else, and were feeling pretty sore. I had a severe bout of tomato picker’s thumb, and was covered in squashed tomatoes – and my back was pretty stiff. However, we sat under a tree and were served a revolting dish of some kind of stew, and drank filthy water out of a sort of milk churn.

Then back to the field and more stooping!!


Tomato picking by hand in California
Tomato picking by hand (photo taken in California, date unknown)


At 4:30 pm I had had it, and could hardly lift my lug over the side of the trailer. I could hardly stand up and was dirtier than I have ever been in my life – covered in yellow pollen, dried tomato juice, and dirt – and I was burnt from the sun!!!

We bumped back to the camp (every bump more agonizing than the last) – and reduced the Mexicans to more hysterics by telling them (through an interpreter) of our scores, me 47 lugs, Colin 49 lugs. They nearly all had over a 100 and one fellow 125.

We crawled into the shower house and leaned against the wall and tried to get off the brown stain, much to the amusement of the men – who then informed us it could only be got off with fresh ripe tomato juice!!! Colin, who didn’t wear any socks, consequently now has brown feet and has to wear socks!!

The shower didn’t really do much for us and we went to dinner and had TRIPE Mexican style (which is far worse than tripe English style) – along with all sorts of peculiar things!!

As we were paid daily we collected our pay which came to $8.84 for me, which was a ridiculous meagre pittance for the agony we had suffered. We then decided to quit – and drove out of the camp feeling as though we were leaving a prisoner of war camp!!

I am really not exaggerating when I say we are in agony. I couldn’t sleep last night and this morning could hardly get up. Every muscle in my back, shoulders and backs of legs is screaming out, and poor old Colin can hardly get in and out of the van. Our buttocks are one of the worst spots, and even sitting down is painful!! We couldn’t have done any work today that’s for certain!

So we drove to San Francisco today, and after visiting the post office had a quick look around and I decided that this is one of the nicest places I have yet visited in the States.

By the way – I think, judging from the dates on your letters and your remarks about my mail, that my first letter has gone astray. This may be because it was overweight and has been sent surface mail, so it could turn up late. I am sure I wrote to you before the 20th. Many apologies.

To be continued… 

NOTE: I couldn’t find any copyright free photos of ‘tomato tar’ stains on pickers’ hands, but there are some amazing photos and some pretty fascinating info at THIS BLOG 

NOTE: There are some fantastic photos of California tomato pickers, taken in 1958 by photographer Harvey Richards, at THIS WEBSITE.

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