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Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America

Author(s):Herndon, Ruth Wallis
Murray, John E.
Reviewer(s):Grubb, Farley

Published by EH.NET (December 2009)

Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray, editors, Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. xii + 264 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-8014-7559-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Farley Grubb, Department of Economics, University of Delaware.

All societies have children who are orphaned or whose parents are too poor to provide care. Societies typically create institutions to provide substitute care. In colonial and early nineteenth-century North America orphaned and pauper children without alternative family support were handled through the political system following English and European precedents. Local government officials or courts placed indigent children via explicit labor contracts into the households of local non-relatives. Typically, the household master agreed to raise the child for a fixed number of years, usually until the age of maturity. The child received room, board, clothing, and other necessities; in many cases some education; and often occupational training or instructive work experience. In return, the child was bound to work for the master for the length of the contract. This system was referred to as orphan or pauper apprenticeship because the agreements resembled private apprenticeship contracts in the marketplace. Within the general commonality of this practice across North America, considerable local variation existed.

Ruth Herndon, professor of history at Bowling Green State University, and John Murray, professor of economics at the University of Toledo, have assembled an expert team of scholars whose combined individual studies provide the most definitive book written on pauper apprenticeship in the last half century. This book should become the new go-to source on the subject. Each contributor provides an in-depth look into a local set of pauper apprenticeship institutions. In total, the studies span or sample the breadth of North American communities, namely the cities of New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, Baltimore, New York, and Montreal, and the countryside and small towns of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New England (11 studies in all). They emphasize the commonality across locations, but also highlight substantive local variations, such as differences in how aggressive local officials were in taking children away from intact but poor families and how the treatment of black and female children differed from that of white and male children, respectively. The various local studies are ably tied together by introductory and concluding chapters, as well as by each study directly referencing findings in the other studies in the book to highlight differences across locales.

A common methodological approach is used, namely presenting a quantifiable data set of pauper apprenticeship contracts from each locale. In total, 18,268 contracts are analyzed. A cross-tabulated distribution of contract characteristics is the typical offering, such as for the age, gender, and race of the children; the type of contract compensation received by the children ? including the educational and occupational training provided and the end-of-contract payments received; and the gender and occupational distribution of the masters. Often administration records are employed, where available, to explore interesting ancillary patterns, such as the differential treatment of orphans and bastards, or the relational identity of the adults surrendering the children to the orphan-care official. Only the New Orleans and Montreal studies, by Paul Lachance and Gillian Hamilton, respectively, employ regression analysis. They estimate the variance in literacy achieved and pay received across pauper apprenticeship contracts controlling for child, parent, master, and contract characteristics. Their results are presented in a reader-friendly manner for the non-cliometrician.

The book is organized into three parts, one each focusing on the master-servant, parent-child, and family-state relationship. This organization is a bit artificial as all the essays to some extent touch on all three relationships. While all the studies are equally strong in some aspect or other, special mention should be made of Timothy Lockley?s study of poor children in Savannah. It alone is worth the price of the book. He traces what happened to pauper apprentices after they had exited their contracts through local tax and court records, a hard feat to accomplish and rarely done especially for the poorest parts of a population. Similarly, Jean and J. Elliot Russo?s study of orphans in rural colonial Maryland provides a compelling use of illegitimacy as an important interpretive tool.

Pauper apprenticeship crosses many fields in economics, e.g. the economics of the family, welfare economics, labor economics, optimal contract theory, and the economics of education. Unfortunately little theoretical structure from these fields is brought to bear on the data presented. As such, the book is more about establishing ?what is? than about analyzing ?why it is.? For example, the optimal or equilibrating contract design for pauper apprenticeship and how that design affected behavior and explains contracted terms is missing from these studies. More frustrating at times is the lack of relevant comparisons that gauge the importance of the institution. Because the distribution of pauper apprenticeship contracts on many margins was tilted toward young teenage boys, labor markets clearly mattered. However, what percentage of the labor force in various categories were comprised of pauper apprentices or what the probability was that a random employer would have, or ever cross paths with, a pauper apprentice is seldom established. We are told that the institution was important, but exactly how important is hard to gauge in any counterfactual or relative proportions sense. These criticisms are only intended to highlight future research directions. Using surviving pauper apprenticeship contracts to establish ?what is? in meticulous detail is the first step to bringing this history to light, and a necessary step before deeper analytical model testing can be done. This book has accomplished exactly that.

Farley Grubb is Professor and NBER Research Associate in the Economics Department at the University of Delaware. E-mail address: grubbf@lerner.udel.edu . Webpage: http://myprofile.cos.com/grubbf16 . His most recent works include: ?U.S. Land Policy: Founding Choices and Outcomes, 1781-1802,? in Douglas A. Irwin and Richard Sylla, eds., Founding Choices (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming) and ?Testing for the Economic Impact of the U.S. Constitution: Purchasing Power Parity across the Colonies versus across the States, 1748-1811,? Journal of Economic History 70, no. 1 (March 2010), forthcoming.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century