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German Immigration and Servitude in America, 1709-1920

Author(s):Grubb, Farley
Reviewer(s):Wegge, Simone A.

Published by EH.Net (May 2013)

Farley Grubb, German Immigration and Servitude in America, 1709-1920. New York: Routledge, 2011. xxvi + 433 pp. $190 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-61061-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Simone A. Wegge, Department of Economics, CUNY.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Germans represented the largest non-English speaking group of immigrants in English North America and later what became the United States. Many of them settled in the state of Pennsylvania; by the middle of the eighteenth century those who claimed German ancestry made up over 50 percent of the population of Pennsylvania, and by the first U.S. census in 1790 over half of all Germans in the U.S. could be found living in the Keystone state. Farley Grubb focuses on German immigration to the state of Pennsylvania in this book, discussing what economic factors guided their decisions, what their immigrant experiences were like, and why they resorted to servitude contracts. The book is divided into three parts, the first on German immigration which focuses on the immigrant experience and immigrant characteristics, a second part covering the servitude market and its demise, and a third part which is an epilogue. The heart of the book consists of the first two parts.

Farley Grubb is a researcher?s researcher, or a scholar?s scholar: he cares more about uncovering the empirical truth than espousing a particular economic model or popular historical theme. Grubb is brutally honest about his work, how he came to the data, what they can do and cannot do, and what is old and what is new in this book.? In another life he would make a great Atticus Finch or Detective Columbo. This is part of the reason this book was such a pleasure to read. I felt like I was getting the truth as best as he sees it, pretty or not.

Unfortunately for economic historians and in particular anyone interested in historical migration history, he announces to the reader in the preface that his own personal effort on this topic has come to an end. So this book is both a compilation of most of Grubb?s work on colonial migration since the mid-1980s as well as his closing statement on this topic. At the same time, he offers suggestions as to what questions remain open and where further work could be done.

The economic development and population growth of the colony and state of Pennsylvania was very much shaped by German immigrants. The first population census of the U.S. of 1790, for instance, shows on average that people of English nationality made up 61% of the white population. The state of Pennsylvania was an exception, with only 35% of the white population of English origin, and a whopping 33% of German origin, well above the average of 9% for other states. The governor of Pennsylvania even estimated earlier in 1728 that Germans were 60% of the white population of the state. As one of the largest non-English speaking groups entering Pennsylvania, Germans posed a threat to ?English culture and political control? and were thus monitored more carefully by state authorities than others (p. 6). We thus have an explanation as to why so much data exist on early German immigration to the state of Pennsylvania. Grubb bases his study mostly on the passenger records collected by ships disembarking in Philadelphia in addition to the servant auction records that exist for several years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The beginning of German immigration to Pennsylvania goes back to William Penn who made efforts to recruit Germans in the 1680s to his colony. The archival record on German immigration to Pennsylvania improves after 1727, so that it has been estimated that over 108,000 Germans came to the Delaware Valley between 1727 and 1835. Most came in the months of August, September, October and November, as they feared the colonial fevers of the summer, a pattern that is remarkably rigid before 1775. In spite of much literary evidence suggesting high mortality and morbidity rates relative to English immigrants and even slaves, Grubb finds that ship mortality rates in the eighteenth century were under 4%, twice as high as nineteenth century rates and a fraction of slave mortality rates of the time. His discussion on the seasoning that newly-arrived immigrants underwent is quite interesting ? Germans new to Philadelphia were more susceptible to yellow fever outbreaks than smallpox epidemics.

During British rule, most traveled from the Rhineland area of Germany down the Rhine River, through a Dutch port, through British customs and then across the Atlantic Ocean to Philadelphia. This journey could take anywhere from 2 to 8 months. Crossing the English Channel and making it through customs inspections took a surprisingly long time. Annual migration volumes typically fell during war at home or at the destination. Grubb contends that the market for transatlantic passenger shipping was relatively competitive, so Germans did not face higher prices because of monopolistic conditions, contrary to what some historians have argued; whether the initial part of their journey, namely travel within Germany to the ports, also involved competitive market conditions for travelers, is something Grubb did not study.

Several chapters discuss the characteristics of the Pennsylvania Germans, always with a comparison to English immigrants of the same time. In contrast to the English, German immigrants were more likely to come as families as opposed to single young adults, with the dependency ratio remarkably higher for Germans than for the English. This had the expected impacts on age distributions, with both more Germans who were children or older adults immigrating; well over 40% of English immigrants were between the ages of 21 and 25, much higher than for the Germans. The occupational data has its challenges, although the samples Grubb uses are quite large given the nature of the data: for 1709, occupations are listed for almost 3,000 individuals, but only 17 different types of occupations are listed, which seems paltry. This number quadrupled by the end of the century. Still one can make a basic summary: Grubb states that ?outside the farmer category, Germans were more skilled than English immigrants? (p. 101).

One glaring difference is that the occupational distributions for the Germans across the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century show fewer than 1% were laborers, while the one distribution for the English immigrants for 1774-76 shows 25% were laborers. Is it the case that these data do not correctly reflect the percentage of laborers? Or is it the case that even with the institution of servitude, migration was so expensive (especially in the interior of Germany) that German laborers could not afford to leave? If the latter is closer to the truth, this is evidence of positive self-selection in terms of comparing those who left Germany to those who stayed home. Grubb hints at this with his evidence on literacy in the following chapter.

The last three chapters of Part I deal with literacy and education. Immigrants to the colonies tended to be more literate than those in their homelands, which had the additional effect of making for a highly literate colonial population. German immigrants, in spite of Benjamin Franklin?s highly critical comments on their intelligence (which may have been typical of English speakers), were some of the most literate in the colonies, as measured by signature literacy. Over time, however, within the eighteenth century, literacy got worse but then improved again: Grubb cites evidence from other scholars of degeneracy in literacy among many groups in the colonies in the early eighteenth century, which seems to be related to population density and the ability or inability of immigrant parents to transmit literacy to their children.

The second chapter on literacy, Chapter 7 of the book, provides an interesting estimation of illiteracy, controlling carefully for ?life-cycle effects within each generation? as separate from ?secular trends across generations.? Scholars of literacy might want to avail themselves of Grubb?s Figure 7.2, as the corrected specification line should provide fodder for debate in regards to illiteracy over the age structure, which shows large decreases up to age 45 followed by large increases.? Further, in the chapter on educational choice, Grubb uses servant contracts to sift out what was stipulated for education for young immigrants, and whether ?education time? was to be done on an informal basis or a formal basis; this is interesting material, as we have little understanding as to what methods were used in acquiring literacy outside of formal education institutions.

In the second part of the book (Chapters 9 through 18) Grubb focuses on German immigrants to discuss a myriad of issues involving the institution of servitude. A large proportion of immigrants to the American colonies worked as indentured servants in their first years to pay off passage costs. Grubb estimates the incidence of German immigrant servitude to be 44.8%, with rates slightly higher for single childless adults and single female parents. Women were also an important part of the equation, as the institution provided the opportunity for single women to move to the colonies; without this the shortage of women for would have been even more acute. Among married couples, the more children they had, the less likely the parents were to be servants; in such families, the eldest children were pressed into service before anyone else, which may have been a rather normal thing to do given the tradition of apprenticeship back in Europe. Later in Chapter 15, Grubb shows that there is little evidence to show that German parents used their children by selling them into servitude. His sample however, is quite small. Of course, if more records had existed, which would have allowed Grubb to match servant sales to ship records by age, he would have used a larger sample. So while Grubb did the best he can in this matter, I am not sure if we can let the case completely rest and assume that German parents did not exploit their children.

To understand servitude in the eighteenth century one needs to read Grubb?s many chapters on this subject. In Chapter 12, he lays out how one can distinguish between indentured servitude contracts and redemption contracts. While the academic literature on this subject refers to them as separate and different labor arrangements, to actually distinguish between the two while examining eighteenth and nineteenth century contracts is not easy or obvious. Grubb?s Chapter 12 provides a tutorial in this; it is useful to combine one?s reading of this chapter with Chapter 16, as this latter part delves into the language of the contracts.

Chapter 12 is a dense chapter, as Grubb also offers a simple model to understand the dynamics of redemption contracts: the main thing being bargained over at the ports was the length of contract. In Chapter 13, Grubb provides econometric evidence that contract length can be explained by a number of variables, particularly those related to productivity and in the later period by the year of arrival. As Grubb concludes on page 270, ?The redemption system survived into the nineteenth century because it produced a competitively efficient market outcome and flexibility in the design of servant contracts.?

While this statement is not at all astonishing coming from a Chicago-trained economist, what Grubb has to say about settlement patterns is more thought-provoking. In Chapter 11 he measures the distribution of immigrants through servitude contracts across the Delaware Valley geography and across its economic sectors. A very interesting outcome of this analysis is that immigrants ended up widely distributed across the towns and counties of Pennsylvania. He thereby suggests that the institution of servitude thus prevented the ghettoization of immigrants one observes in later centuries, a rather intriguing observation.

One of the more fascinating questions in this literature remains ? why did this institution die? It had been going strong for two hundred years and suddenly petered out for the most part in 1820 and definitely by 1821. In Chapters 17 and 18 Grubb definitively shows that demand side explanations can all be ruled out. Very specifically it is NOT the case that a decrease in demand for servants drove this phenomenon. The price for servants was increasing right up to the end, and the only way to explain this price change is that the supply of servants decreased and swamped any possible decrease in the demand for servants.

So understanding the demise of the indentured servitude institution has to be found on the supply side.? Grubb?s main answer to this is that chain migration effects kicked into high gear, that there were enough previous immigrants who could support and pay for those who wanted to leave Germany. Remittances displacing redemption! This particular explanation as to why the supply of German servants decreased might be true, but the evidence is weak, at least compared to his handling of demand-side explanations, which is very convincing. Grubb?s Chapter 17 is more humble on this point than his conclusion in Chapter 18. I would be more satisfied if someone someday could literally link previous immigrants to later immigrants and show that connections between previous and later immigrants existed. Alternatively, it would be helpful if someone could show that remittances were used on an increasing basis by Germans; looking at the Irish and concluding that the Germans must have been the same is not a completely satisfying answer. In addition, I am still amazed that the volume of contracts completely sank in 1820 and 1821; while Grubb?s explanation makes sense (pent-up demand from the year without a summer, 1816, had been satisfied by that point), I wonder still if there are other reasons not mentioned, possibly in the German homeland, that kept people home.

Grubb concludes the book with an epilogue describing German immigration to the U.S. between 1820 and 1920. These last two chapters provide a roadmap for anyone wishing to delve into this particular subject, as they provide an overall picture of where Germans came from, where they settled, their occupational background and how this changed over time, their literacy rates, etc.?????

Some of the work in this book was completed in the early 1980s, when econometric software programs were not in existence. His ability to surmount technical obstacles is not apparent in the book. Curious about how he completed the technical work, I contacted Farley Grubb on this matter. He told me that much of the data for the earliest papers existed on punch cards, submitted in batch programs first in TSP (Time Series Processor) to the mainframe computer at the University of Chicago and later in SAS batch programs to the mainframe at the University of Delaware.? Grubb explained further how some of the graphs were produce: ?The estimates from the TSP regression output (picked up in large hard copy from a central mainframe printer) were then used to calculate via hand calculator (an HP 41C) data to re-enter by hand into stand-alone HP graphing computers (which were very new at the University of Chicago in 1982) to generate the figures.? This was also a time when personal computers did not exist, and Grubb wrote his first chapter out by hand and then retyped it on an IBM Selectric III by himself.

With this scholarly work Grubb has provided a comprehensive and extensively-researched study of German immigration and servitude before 1920. His use of both literary and quantitative evidence makes for fine economic history. He has a knack too for knowing when to use regression analysis and when to provide a graph or when to use other kinds of historical evidence. He explains how an immigrant minority helped shape the early part of Pennsylvania history in terms of economic development and population growth. Further, their participation in free and servant labor markets most probably staved off the use of slave labor in this state. With this body of work he offers many insights into the servitude market and answers many outstanding issues about this most interesting institution that thrived and evolved over two hundred years and then died suddenly. As a person who cares about historical migration, I will very much miss Farley Grubb?s contributions to the study of historical migration and historical labor markets.

Simone A. Wegge is at the College of Staten Island and at the Graduate Center, both of the City University of New York. Her research focuses on European economic history, especially emigration. Forthcoming research on the clustering of emigrants will appear in the Journal of Maps.

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII