This exhibition explores Seabrook Farms’ layered histories, focusing in particular on the relationship between captive labor and capitalism that defined the company’s employment practices and government-backed hiring strategies during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.
Famous for its frozen vegetables, by 1950 Seabrook Farms was the largest agribusiness in the United States, employing more than 6,000 seasonal and permanent laborers during peak production periods. Located in rural Upper Deerfield Township, approximately 30 miles south of Philadelphia, recruiting a sufficient supply of laborers had always been a challenge to the company. Military conscription and increased production demands caused by wartime contracts only exacerbated the situation. The war, however, also created opportunities for Seabrook to procure new sources of labor. This included approximately 2,500 American citizens (Nisei) and immigrants of Japanese descent (Issei) incarcerated in internment camps. While federal officials defended internment as a matter of national security, no evidence backed this claim, and no formal charges were ever brought against any of the detained. Internment reflected white Americans’ longstanding belief that Japanese immigrants and their children were racially unassimilable.
At Seabrook, paroled internees worked alongside immigrant guestworkers from the Caribbean, migrant laborers contracted from the American South, and a small contingent of German POWs, groups whose freedom of mobility and job choice were similarly constrained. After the war’s end, Seabrook Farms would add to its ranks of workers Estonian Displaced Persons, whom the company sponsored as refugees. It would accept Japanese Peruvians brought to the United States and imprisoned by the federal government, who in 1946 faced deportation to Japan.
Seabrook was at once a haven for groups with limited options and a site where control, surveillance, and discrimination continued. A company town, Seabrook owned the housing workers lived in, provided social services, operated the local school system, and sponsored sports teams, dances, and scout troops for its labor force and their families. Archival records demonstrate that Japanese Americans and Estonian refugees received a relatively favorable welcome from white residents in Bridgeton, New Jersey, the nearest sizeable town. As these groups’ sponsor, Seabrook Farms promoted paroled internees and refugees as more desirable candidates for integration than black migrant laborers from the British West Indies and the American South, who were subject to hostility from the local white majority, treated as a transient workforce, and paid lower wages by the company.
Curating this exhibit, we have grappled with the contradictions that Seabrook represents as a place of both safety and captivity. We have tried to move beyond a narrative that is narrowly celebratory, which has been the dominant mode of interpreting Seabrook to date. We have juxtaposed archival sources not typically used in presenting Seabrook’s history with images that were commissioned in the 1940s and 1950s by the company’s official Photographic Department. To these ends, we hope that the exhibition provides viewers with a foundation for coming to their own invariably complex and nuanced conclusions.
Postcard from Seabrook
During the height of its production, Seabrook Farms attracted widespread attention as a model agribusiness. A color postcard, based on a black-and-white aerial photograph, shows the main freezing plant surrounded by warehouses, company housing, and fields. Postcard of Seabrook Farms, c. 1950
Vegetable Varieties: Life photo
After 1934, Seabrook became famous for flash-freezing vegetables that had been in the ground only hours earlier, which allowed the company to ship frozen produce to retailers year-round. Vegetable sorters, a job performed almost exclusively by women in the plant, remove damaged and misshapen lima beans and corn. “Vegetable Varieties,” Life, Jan. 3, 1955
Picker and farmhand who lives by himself in the corner of an old barn by himself on a farm
In 1943, 516 Jamaican men employed by Seabrook lived in the Big Oaks Farm Security Administration camp. Guestworkers entered the US under government contracts that prohibited them from changing jobs. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
David Burgess to Mary Dyckman, President of the Consumers League of New Jersey
Seabrook Farms closely controlled access to its workforce. In a 1944 postcard, David Burgess, a farm labor organizer and minister, reports being placed under surveillance by agents hired by Seabrook and Birdseye. Courtesy of the Consumers League of New Jersey Records, MC 1090, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries
Trial Leave with Train Fare Advanced
Seabrook Farms frequently relied on internees already paroled to the company to recruit additional workers. In this flyer, text in both English and Japanese promotes the company's willingness to advance train fare to potential workers, and to pay for their return after six months if they no longer wished to remain. Records of the War Relocation Authority, Record Group 210, National Archives Building, Washington, DC
The first week at Seabrook for some of its Estonian residents, from the album “Eestlased Seabrookin: Esimesed Aastad Alates 1949," (Estonians from Seabrook: First Years Starting from 1949)
Following the passage of the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, Seabrook sponsored 650 Estonian refugees, guaranteeing the housing and employment that was a condition of their entry being granted. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway
Seabrook Farms Cookbook
Seabrook Farms marketed its frozen produce to postwar consumers, mainly women, who were eager to modernize their culinary practices and save time cooking. In a cookbook that the company distributed for free to drum up business, a "portrait of Seabrook specialities" shows an array of meals that could be made from the company's products. Seabrook Farms Frozen Foods Miracle Meals Cookbook and the Enjoyment of Perfect Vegetable Made Easy, 1950s