This post reviews Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray, eds., Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009)
This fascinating book is the product of a long process of collaboration by a wide range of historians brought together by the Spencer Foundation under the leadership of the amazing educational historian John Rury. Herndon and Murray collaborated with 11 other researchers to produce the most comprehensive and compelling look by far at the institution of pauper apprenticeships in North America from the colonial period until about 1850. Why does this matter for homeschooling? Because throughout this period, the most common way to educate children in dire circumstances was in the homes of more stable families.
Unlike nearly every other edited collection of essays I’ve ever read, this book holds together brilliantly, each chapter contributing seamlessly to the whole. The editors provide a marvelous first chapter that synthesizes the case studies that follow, though each subsequent chapter provides details and analysis that make them all worth reading for their own sake. The 13 authors have chosen a range of population centers to capture the diversity of societies present in early America, and in each location have looked intently at every record available on pauper apprenticeship.
What is pauper apprenticeship? It was the dominant way most North American towns dealt with children who had lost their parents, been abandoned or abused, or were such a burden that their parents gave them up. In such situations local magistrates would write up indentures that spelled out a legal relationship between the poor child and a master. The master would provide the child’s basic physical needs and teach the child knowledge and skills necessary for him or her to function as a contributing member of society in exchange for the child’s labor. All in all the book catalogs and analyzes some 18,000 such contracts, and the results are fascinating.
An examination of this theme introduces us to some of the amazing things about early American families that most people don’t know much about. It’s common for many today to hearken nostalgically back to the good old days when Americans were all happily nestled in large two-parent families full of piety, patriotism, and frontier independence. But it wasn’t like that at all. As I described in my book in great detail, colonial government could be very invasive if families did not behave the way local officials felt they ought. In some cases, (as was the case with many children who became pauper apprentices) government could and would remove children by force from parents deemed unfit. As one source cited in this book put it, such children should be removed from the “Briers and Rubbish” of their biological families to be given a better chance at becoming productive citizens. (p.4) Furthermore, violence against these children was common and largely accepted. And such children’s very existence testifies to the fact that the “breakdown of the family” is nothing new. Thousands of these kids were declared “orphans” even though they still had mothers. Many of them were born out of wedlock or to mothers whose husbands had run off to the West.
The practice of putting poor children, by force if necessary, into male-headed homes was brought to the new world from the old and continued as the dominant charitable practice until the middle of the 19th century, when a host of new institutions like public schools and orphanages gradually took over. The institution of pauper apprenticeship allowed town magistrates to care for poor children without having to tax their citizens to do so.
Once bound to a master, pauper apprentices were supposed to learn a trade and basic literacy. Sometimes this worked well, but other times the apprentice was treated as slave labor. At its best, boys picked up whatever trade the master practiced and were taught their ABCs, typically from the master’s wife. Girls learned homemaking skills and literacy in the same way. Some boys received arithmetic training as well. But at its worst both boys and girls learned little more than ceaseless drudgery punctuated by haranguings and beatings.
Though it varied widely from place to place, on average a child was bound out at about age seven and continued until “majority,” which for boys was age 21 and for girls age 16 or 18. Black children were often bound out earlier and for longer periods, especially in slaveholding regions. Their contracts typically have less to say about education as well.
These are some of the highlights from the introductory summary chapter. Let me close with a few interesting tidbits gleaned from some of the more focused studies of specific towns.
T. Stephen Whitman’s study of Baltimore and its environs found that the educational standards prescribed in contracts gradually increased for white girls as the 19th century wore on. He describes three historical stages in pauper apprentice education. Early on, masters were charged with ensuring certain outcomes, such as literacy and the development of a specific trade skill. Later, specified outcomes were replaced by requirements specifying “the extent, timing, and content of education.” These more formal requirements were increasingly found easier to be met by formal schooling, which explains the shift away from home-based training by the 1850s. Whitman summarizes, “the development of schools, orphanages, and juvenile prisons as educational institutions had, by the 1850s, largely eliminated the need for masters to school apprentices.” (p.62)
Adriana Van Zwieten’s chapter on New Netherland provides several interesting anecdotes illustrating the wide range of practices masters employed to meet the educational requirements of their contracts. Many masters took care of their educational responsibilities at home, whether themselves or by hiring a tutor, but other sent their charges to night school, Sunday School, or some other formal institution. Zwieten notes that contracts were intentionally drafted to allow “masters and mistresses various options to fulfill the agreement.” (93)
Paul Lachance’s chapter on New Orleans notes that all but three of the contracts he examined in that city specifically designated “night school” as the institution to be used to impart literacy. He notes that despite the prescription, based on the evidence of signature rates, if children did not know how to read before they were apprenticed they likely wouldn’t learn to do so under New Orleans masters. Literacy rates for white apprentices did improve after 1830. Why? Because that was when New Orleans created public schools for white students. Poor kids could thus attend them for free and learn to read before they were bound to masters. Black children, however, were not allowed to attend these schools and their literacy rates remained low. (120)
Holly Brewer’s chapter on Virginia, probably my favorite in the book, ties both the decline in apprenticeship and the growth of public education in the 19th century to the ideology of Republicanism. Republican ideology was responsible in good measure for the shift in popular attitudes about childhood from the colonial notion of children as property to the modern understanding of children as persons. Similarly, Republicanism contributed to a hardening of the distinction between family and society, such that by the mid 19th century Americans increasingly viewed childhood as a distinct life stage that should be cherished and nurtured and viewed the family as an inviolable social unit prior to and superior to the larger society. Brewer provocatively writes,
“such scholars as Christopher Lasch have their progression backwards when they clam that ‘the history of modern society…is the assertion of social control over activities once left to individuals or their families.'” (p.197)
On the contrary, says Brewer,
“the new republic, with the revision of laws and policies that accompanied the Revolution, accelerated the acceptance of certain elements of Enlightenment thought and saw the implementation of policies that tended to keep families together.”
Said more simply, the idealization of the nuclear family that so many associate with Colonial Puritanism was actually more a product of the Enlightenment.
In sum, this is a great book that offers much new material and analysis of its theme. I wish I had had it a couple of years ago, for it would have added a lot to my book’s treatment of apprenticeship as a form of home-based education.