Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Labor Conditions in Colonial America

Back in 1934, the Bureau of Labor Statistics produced a fascinating and very readable book entitled History of Wages in the United States From Colonial Times to 1928 : Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 604. There’s lots of cool stuff there, but it quickly becomes apparent that Colonial America was a whole other country than today’s America.

I want to quote extensively from the beginning of the book. (Note – I’m not going to copy footnotes.) It begins with a chapter entitled “Early Working Conditions and Wage Legislation.” The chapter begins with this:

“ High American wages” date from the beginning of the country, to judge from evidence contained in the earliest colonial records in which reference to wages is found. Letters and reports from agents of the British companies engaged in colonial settlement and from the early colonial governors, express consternation amounting to distress over the “ exhorbitant demands” of craftsmen and laborers. A colonial treasurer of the Virginia Colony declared, about 1625, that the wages paid there were “ intolerable” and “ much in excess of the sum paid to the same class of persons in England.” In 1633 Governor Winthrop, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, noted that the “ excessive rates ” charged by workmen “ grew to a general complaint ” which called for legislative action, and a colonial governor in North Carolina complained that “ the Price of Labour is very high.”

From the workman’s side of the story comes similar testimony treated from a different viewpoint. Gabriel Thomas, who wrote a history of “ the Province and Countrey of Pensilvania” in 1698 for the purpose of inducing the poverty-stricken workers of England to emigrate, asserts that “ the encouragements are very greate and inviting, for Poor People (both Men and Women) of all kinds can here get three times the wages for their Labour they can in England or Wales;” and William Penn says in a letter that “ all provisions are reasonable but Labour dear, which makes it a good Poor Man’s country.” Another promoter, with a zeal suggestive of present-day publicity methods, wrote glowingly of the “ happy circumstances” in which laborers in New Jersey were placed in 1641.

Moving on:

Governor Winthrop, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared in 1630 that the “ scarcity of workers caused them to raise their wages to an excessive rate;” a century and a quarter later Governor Dobbs, of North Carolina, reported that “ artificers and labourers being scarce in comparison to the number of Planters, when they are employed they won’t work half, scarce a third part of work in a Day of what they do in Europe, and their wages are from two shillings to 3, 4, and 5 shillings per Diem this currency.”

Today’s Planters, er, farmers sympathize.  Of course, today’s outrage is that workers get paid more in the US than in Mexico.

A bit later, still in chapter 1, we get a section entitled “Control of Workers”:

Both of these conditions, the scarcity of labor and the resulting high wages, were met differently by the northern and the southern colonies… The New England colonies undertook to meet them by regulation and legislation. If local laws limiting property holding and citizenship to “ freemen” and “ commoners” operated to exclude needed tradesmen from a town, the laws were either suspended in given cases or the town found some way to get around them in order to secure the desired services. Both Boston and Charlestown in 1640 waived certain of the citizenship requirements to obtain carpenters. As early as 1635 Lynn voted to admit a landless blacksmith, and later granted him 20 acres of land, thus keeping both the blacksmith and the letter of the law requiring that residents be landholders.

These concessions as a rule had strings to them. When 20 citizens of Haverhill, Mass., raised a subscription among themselves to purchase a house and land in order that a blacksmith could come into the settlement, they required that the smith agree to remain for seven years, and did not permit him to work for any person other than the 20 subscribers. The town of Windsor, Conn., presented a currier with a house and land and “ something for a shop,” but it was to belong to him and his heirs only on condition that “ he lives and dies with us and affords us the use of his trade.” Otherwise the property was to revert to the town. In 1656 William How was granted “ twelve acres of meadow land and twelve acres of upland ” in what afterwards became the great textile center of Lowell, Mass., “ provided he set up his trade of weaving and perform the town’s work.”

Once established in the colony, workmen were under the rigid regulation and control of a governmental system which, to quote Weeden, believed that it “ could legislate prosperity and well-being for everyone, rich or poor.” Impressment of labor was one tenet of that system, and “ either the public need or the demands of private business could enforce it.” As a rule it was only in harvest time that craftsmen were impressed into private service, but carpenters were sometimes drafted to build houses for individuals. Work on the public roads one day in the month was required of every workman in Salem, and he was subject to a fine of 3 shillings if he did not comply. When the selectmen of Dedham, Mass., decided to build a meeting house, the committee in charge was authorized to “ order men to worke upon the same.”

The next section of Chapter 1 deals with “Wage Legislation”

It was in legislation dealing with wages, however, that the authorities in the New England colonies made their most persistent efforts to control workers. Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony passed similar laws in 1630 fixing a maximum rate of pay. In Massachusetts Bay Colony:

It was ordered that Carpenters, Joyners, Brickelayers, Sawers and Thatchers shal not take above 2s. [48.6 cents] a day, and 16d. [32 cents] a day if they have meate and drinke, nor any man shall give more, under paine of 10s. [$2.43] to taker and giver; and that sawers shal not take above 4s. 6d. [$1.00] ye hundred for boards, att six score to the hundred, if they have their wood felled and squared for them, and not above 5s. 6d. [$1.33] if they fell and square their wood themselves. It was ordered that labourers shal not take above 12d. [24.3 cents] a day for their worke, and not above 6d. [12 cents] and meat and drink, under paine of 10s. [$2.43].

Although this law was not successful and operated less than six months, the court tried again in 1633, with lower rates and evidently greater determination, to dictate wages. The second ruling kept the same rate of 2s. a day for “ master” workmen—building tradesmen, mowers, and wheelwrights— but the rate with “ dyett” became 14d. (28 cents) a day instead of 16d. “ Master taylors” were allowed 12d. (24.3 cents) and “ inferior taylors” 8d. (16 cents) per day “ with dyett.” Instead of fixing the rate for laborers, or “ inferior” workmen, as did the 1630 act, that of 1633 left its determination to the town constable and “ two indifferent freemen,” probably for each and every given case.

Of course, it helps if the workers know their place.  The powers that be knew how to keep workers from developing fancy tastes that might lead them to get uppity, though truth to tell, a bit more than that might be happening in the quote below:

A few years later the court, “ aware that the board at public houses, if extravagant, not only required a corresponding price from the traveller, but also put him in the hazard of contracting a taste for similar fare at his own house, and thus promoted a costly mode of living, ever unfavorable to the pecuniary concerns of a community,” tried another way of helping the consumer. It declared that:

Whereas complaint hath bene also made that diverse pore people, who would willingly content themselves with meane dyet are forced to take such dyet as is tendered them at 12d. [24.3 cents] the meale or more; it is now ordered that every keeper of such Inn or comon vicualling house shall sell and allow unto every of their guests such victuals as they shall call for, and not force them to take more or other than they desire, bee it never so meane and small in quantity, and shall affoard the same and all other dyet at reasonable prizes upon paine of such fine as the Court shall inflict according to the measure and quantity of the offence.

This law was enacted in 1637.

Anyway, the book is chock full of good stuff. I might quote some more in later posts.

Tags: , Comments (4) | |