A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from February 04, 2009
“Packed like sardines”

Since at least the 1900s, passengers on New York City’s trains have been described as “packed like sardines.” Sardines are packed together tightly in cans, with little space in-between them.

The phrase “packed like herrings in a barrel” is cited in the 1600s and 1700s; packed “like sardines in a can” is cited from the 1850s.  The “herrings” usage appears to be much earlier than the “sardines” usage, although “herrings” is seldom used in the phrase today. Several of the earliest “packed like herrings” citations referred to slave trade ships.

The Free Dictionary
be packed like sardines
if people are packed like sardines, there are a large number of them in a small space. There were twenty people packed like sardines into a van.

(Oxford English Dictionary)
sardine, n.
In colloq. phr. to be packed (in) like sardines: to be crowded or confined tightly together, as sardines in a tin.
1911 W. OWEN Let. 12 Sept. (1967) 80 The entrance hall..where for half an hour the boys stand waiting packed like sardines.
1922 Dialect Notes V. 172 We were packed in there like sardines in a box.
1974 Daily Mirror 11 Nov. 4/3 Lodgers at a lorry drivers’ digs hit by a horror blaze were ‘packed in like sardines’, it was claimed yesterday.

Google Books
The Modern Part of Universal History
By the Authors of the Antient Part
Vol. XVI
London: Printed for S. Richardson, T. Osborne, C. Hitch, A. Millar, John Rivington, S. Crowder, P. Davey and B. Law, T. Longman, and C. Ware
Pg. 102:
Seven or eight hundred men and women promiscuously squeezed, like herrings, or mackerel, into one ship, where they can lie only on one side, upon the bare boards, and often forced to lie double, during the whole voyage, with no other food than horse-beans and water, stifled up for want of air, and with their own stench.
(The slave trade—ed.)

Google Books
The History of Julia Benson, in a Series of Letters
Vol. I
Dublin: Charles Lodge
Pg. 46:
“...fill Westminster-hall, though packed like herrings in a barrel.”

6 June 1789, Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, PA), “Remarks on the Slave-Trade,” pg. 2:
Here is presented to our view, one of the most horrid spectacles; a number of creatures, parked, side by side, almost like herrings in a barrel, and reduced nearly to the state of being buried alive, with just air enough to preserve a degree of life, sufficient to make them sensible of all the horror of their situation.

23 August 1819, Boston (MA) Commercial Gazette, pg. 2:
...they are literally packed like herrings in a cask; they each of them paid in advance 150 florins; there will probably be a pestilence on board the ship before it reaches Flushing.

Google Books
31 May 1823, Niles’ Weekly Register, pg. 197:
He is thence transferred to a small steam boat, and those who had ample room on the Chesapeake may be packed like pickled herrings on the Delaware, without a place to lie on, though the time now is when rest and sleep are most wanted in all the 24 hours of the day.

Google Books
A Pilgrimage in Europe and America
By J. C. Beltrami, Esq. (Giacomo Costantino Beltrami—ed.)
London: Hunt and Clarke
Pg. 57:
We were packed like red herrings, in a bad stage-coach, full of Kentuckians, whom it is really impossible to endure.

Google Books
March 1846, Ladies’ Repository, pg. 67:
A small space of school-room, just in front of the large fireplace, remains open, while the remainder, rising on an inclined plain, is crowded with rude seats, into which are packed, close as a box of herrings, some eighty or one hundred great and small boys and girls.

Google Books
March 1851, Southern Literary Messenger, pg. 180:
...the guests have as much elbow room as the herrings in a box;...

Google Books
July 1854, Southern Literary Messenger, pg. 430:
...but, nevertheless we get safely on board, and are packed together like herrings in a barrel, in a long wretched cabin, with a stove that smells and smokes.

Google Books
March 1855, De Bow’s Review, pg. 300:
I found it impossible to adjust the whole in a sitting posture; but we made them lie down in each other’s laps, like sardines in a can, and in this way obtained space for the entire cargo.
(The article is “The African Slave Trade,” and this quotation comes from “Capt. Canot, Twenty Years of an African Slaver,” perhaps referring to 1826—ed.)

6 July 1861, Easton (MD) Gazette, pg. 2:
Continuing the search, a false floor was discovered in the main room of the building under which was packed away like sardines in a box, a number of muskets.

30 December 1864, Macon (GA) Weekly Telegraph, pg. 2:
“Our money and clothing were taken from us; we were double ironed and packed like sardines in a box, being only allowed twelve by five feet for eighteen of us in a very close atmosphere.”

Google Books
March 1869, Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, pg. 273:
Through a long day of labor, and a night devoid of ease, packed like herrings in a cask, or sardines in a box, we have endured the agony of the journey in the slow-moving, sharp-jolting stage-coach, and the six hundred and twenty-fifth mile is passed at last.

Google Books
September 1870, Ladies’ Repository, pg. 231:
But there she was snug asleep, and her eight babies were packed around the walls like herrings in a box.

Google Books
Westward By Rail
By William Fraser Rae
London: W. Ibister & Co.
Pg. 252:
The common saying about being packed as closely as herrings in a barrel expresses, with but slight exaggeration, the manner in which the Chinamen are packed in this hotel.

1 October 1889, Kansas City (MO) , pg. 5, col. 1:
At the Ribbon counter very busy and we must repeat what we overheard a lady say coming up to the counter, “My! Packed like sardines in a can.”

10 May 1902, Bangor (ME) Daily News, pg. 8:
An Industry That Employs Thousands of People Along
the Eastern Coast of Maine—Passamaquoddy
Bay the Home of the Herring.

Special to the Bangor Daily News.
EASTPORT, May 10.--The many thousand residents among the coast towns of Eastern Maine who have been looking forward with considerable interest to the 10th of May, which is the date for the annual opening of the numerous sardine canning factories now realize that few of the factories will start up on time. (...)

The home of the herring is certainly Passamaquoddy bay and its tributaries, since these fish have been found in large schools along the eastern coast since the time of the very early settlers of Maine and herring were packed in barrels, smoked and otherwise cured many years previous to the opening of the first sardine canning factory in East port in 1875 by Julius Wolff of New York and William Marton of Eastport. (...) (Col. 2—ed.)

Since 1875 the sardine canning industry has advanced with rapid strides from the small plant erected in Eastport until now there are nearly one hundred factories engaged in the industry along the eastern coast of Maine, although not all are operated during the season. It was four seasons following the opening of the first plant before another was erected down east and twenty-two years ago there were only five factories engaged in the industry down east. (...)

Chronicling America
28 October 1901, New York (NY) Evening World, pg. 8, col. 3:
‘They say the crowds at the fire were packed as closely together as passengers on an ‘L’ train.”

“Oh, not quite so bad as that! No worse than like sardines in a box.”

Google Books
July 1913, Hearst’s International Magazine, pg. 135, col. 2:
Why Ride Like Sardines?

October 1919, The Steward, pg. 33, col. 2:
But an Ex-B.R.T. Conductor Got the Job.
Manager—You want a place as sardine packer, eh?
Applicant—Yes, sir.
Manager—Had any experience?
Applicant—Yes, sir, two years as a conductor on the London underground railway.
-- London “Tid-Bits.”

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