Housekeeping during the construction days of the Panama Canal was almost as much of an adventure in pioneering as the excavation of the big ditch or the construction of the locks or the dam.  In the very early days, from 1905-1909, the housing problem was acute.  Employees were asked not to bring their wives or families with them when reporting for work, and in some cases, a year or more elapsed before children saw their fathers, or wives their husbands.  Those few intrepid souls who did come down with their men, lived in box cars - two being assigned to a large family in some cases - while others made shift with some of the old French quarters which were delapidated and badly in need of repairs.  As the construction of American quarters progressed, tropical problems arose and some of the early houses were not particularly adapted for use here. One Old Timer recollects that his first family quarters were built without sufficient overhang to protect against the driving tropical rains.  The dining room of this particular house was on the back porch, and many days the family sat at table sheltered by umbrellas while they ate their meals.  Early settlers in Gorgona even found the bathroom situation a problem.  No tubs or showers or other bathing facilities had been installed in the houses although there was running water, and for several months a community bathhouse served for the town.  Almost all of the houses were built on stilts off the ground, but the supporting pillars were not creosoted and ants, roaches and spiders swarmed through the quarters. At certain times of the year, the large black ants migrated, evidently from one nest to another, and on these occasions floors of the infested quarters were black with the swarms of marching insects.   During construction days and until 1915, Canal employees paid no rent, water, care of grounds, electricity or fuel for the cook stoves.  Their only expenses were for food and the ice with which to refrigerate it.  Distilled water was delivered to each house daily by donkey cart in the very early days, and later by truck.  At first each householder had to provide his own container for water, but later it came in five gallon glass jars daily.  Although each house was equipped with running water, the water was not filtered and was unsafe to drink. In case of parties or an excessive drain on the drinking water supply, neighboring families borrowed water much in the same manner as ice cubes are swapped back and forth today.


The early commissaries were not the up-to-date department stores which modern day employees are accustomed to complain so bitterly about.   Ready made clothing was not sold in the commissaries until about 1914, although yard goods for both men and women's apparel was available.  In the very early days, about 1907, the dry goods section at the Empire commissary carried the following items:   needles and pins, black and white thread and unbleached muslin by the yard. The construction day employees had considerable difficulty accustoming themselves to the native fruits and vegetables, and consequently the commissaries carried very few of them.   In 1908 and for a few years afterward fresh refrigerated vegetables were shipped in from the States twice weekly and women stood in the commissary lines for hours to buy them.  Each of the construction towns in the central division supported a commissary although there was none in Ancon until almost 1913.  Ancon residents ordered their meats and ice directly from Cristobal on weekly orders.  For instance, Mrs. Smith would place a weekly order specifying lamb for Monday, liver for Tuesday, pork chops for Wednesday and so on.  The meat and an order of ice, plus what groceries she had also ordered were then delivered daily.  All of the ice came from Cristobal, and if there were a washout along the line or the train were delayed the people in the Central Division and in the Pacific end were somewhat put out.


Fresh milk was always a problem and in the earliest days was practically unavailable.  A 1913 commissary list shows certified milk as selling at 20 a bottle -size not specified- with 5 cents returnable on the container.  As late as 1923 milk was scarce and could be obtained from the commissary only on the presentation of doctors' certificates.  These certificates were divided into three classes.  Class I which included babies under a year of age and nursing mothers always got milk.  Class II, which was for babies up to three and convalescents, received milk if there was a surplus after Class I was supplied.   Class III, which was for older children and chronic invalids, was taken care of after the first two groups had been cared for.  Ice cream was made of canned milk and was pretty awful.  For several years an ice cream parlor operating on the point across from Antonio's which specialized in ice cream made of goats' milk did a land office business.  Most of the Americans on the Zone infinitely preferred this rather strong flavored sweet to the flavor of canned milk ice cream.  During construction days; commissary books were not the familiar pink or white books now issued to Canal employees, with their contents divided into perforated penny sections with each five cents marked off with a blue line.  Each of the old time books carried a number of coupons having values of five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five and fifty cents.  There is considerable disagreement among old timers as to whether the books had any penny sections at all, but the fact remains that some amusing mixups arose.  If a commissary customer's purchase amounted to twelve cents, the clerk accepted ten cents in coupons from the book and two penny boxes of matches.  If the purchases amounted to thirteen cents, fifteen cents worth of coupons were taken from the book and the customer was given two penny boxes of matches.  Hard liquor was sold in the commissaries for some time, although beer and ale were not available.  The sale of liquor was discontinued about 1914.   Bachelors lived in Commission quarters and took their meals at the I.C.C. hotels along the line. Books of meal tickets were issued to employees just as commissary books were sold.  Each meal cost 30 cents, and the amount of food was unlimited.  A thirty cent meal entitled the purchaser to as much as he could eat, even if he wanted three or four servings of the main course plus a couple of desserts.  Few of the married couples or families patronized the I.C.C. hotels for meals except for Sundays or holidays.  On those days, however, most families -with the younger members slicked up and in their best clothes- descended on the hotels for unlimited servings of turkey and puddings.  Most of the old timers report that living in construction days was much cheaper than it is at present.  A check of commissary prices does not reveal a great deal of difference however from present day prices.  Butter and dairy product prices from 1909 through 1913 as shown in the weekly Canal Records, are almost the same as those prices today.


A price list for an April issue in 1913 shows the following prices:  leg of lamb, 20 cents a pound; fresh pork hams, 20 cents a pound; sirloin steak, 19 cents a pound.  Prices for States vegetables were about the same as they are today.  The problem of servants has changed little from that of construction days.  Spanish was a problem to the early housewives and consequently the majority of them used West Indian women in the households.  They were the wives and daughters of laborers employed by the Commission for the larger part, and the wages they were paid were about the same as they are today.  Social life of the early Canal Zone women was nearly the same as that of any community of the same size at the same period.  Card parties and supper parties were given in the homes, although most of the larger functions took place in the clubhouses or at the hotels.  A number of women who lived in Empire during construction days still keep up a club which was started almost thirty years ago.  They meet weekly at their various homes for supper parties.   In the group are Mrs. Fred Whaler, Mrs. Russel Potter, Mrs. Marshall Benninger, Mrs. T.A. Rath, Mrs Lichty, Mrs. W.G. Hull, and Mrs. Harry Hartmann.

Panama American -- August 15, 1939

From The Canal Record ... June 1989

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