Changing Pictures of Childhood: Pauper Apprenticeship

During the colonial period and into the early years of the United States, poor children who became charges of the town were auctioned off to families who took on the responsibility of both housing and “training” them in a trade by putting them to work in and around their household. This practice was known as “pauper apprenticeship.” The terms of such an arrangement were governed by a contract, which spelled out both the obligation of the master to the child and the expected behavior of the child while under the care of the master. 

Pauper apprenticeship created several advantages for the community: it was a means of relieving the poor without having to tap into tax funds; the poor children supposedly received training in a trade that would benefit the community at large (and essentially provided free labor to the master); and in some cases the arrangement removed children from situations that were considered detrimental. Sometimes the poor parents initiated the request to place their children into indentured servitude; at other times it was forced. 

In almost every case, the child being indentured in the Westborough contracts is described as “poor.” Boys were taught “husbandry,” or farming, whereas girls were taught sewing, knitting, spinning, and other activities associated with running a household. Masters were required to provide adequate food and clothing for the child, as well as provide a specified amount of education. Most contracts for boys lasted until they reached the age of 21; girls generally ended their terms at the age of 18.

Childhood and the Family Unit in Early America

During the colonial period, the family was an economic microcosm that sat within the larger social sphere and reflected the same hierarchies and power structures that governed society at large. Economics, religion, law, politics, and family life were all considered to function in tightly knit and related circles of influence. The father sat at the top of the family hierarchy, and everyone below was expected to be subordinate and obedient to him. 

The family unit in the colonial period was much broader in concept and membership than we tend to think of it today. The great majority of the U.S. population during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries lived on self-sufficient farms, and the entire family was expected to contribute to the economic running of the household. Fathers and their elder sons worked out in the fields while wives and daughters attended to the dairy, poultry, cooking, spinning, knitting, and weaving. Because such productivity was wrapped up so closely within the family, servants, apprentices, and paid laborers usually lived in the main house and were considered family members.

The more the family could produce, the better their economic circumstances, so children were encouraged to move into labor roles as quickly as possible. Today, a successful childhood is defined by the degree to which children excel at education and literacy, but success in early America was measured by the acquisition of work skills that allowed them increasingly to perform adult labor. In many ways, people saw children as “little adults in training,” and parents saw their role as moving them quickly into adult status, either by working inside the home or outside of it as a servant or apprentice.

This patriarchal and family-centric economic structure meant that a family that lost its father could quickly fall into financial difficulties and end up applying for poor relief. The American colonies generally inherited practices for handling the poor from England, where such responsibility rested with the locality where the person in question grew up and lived. The poor could easily end up putting significant strains on funds generated by taxpayers, so magistrates and other elected officials went out of their way to find means of limiting such outlays. One method was to warn out of town people who were not originally from the area and could potentially end up on poor relief. Another was to use pauper apprenticeship to take care of poor and neglected children.

Go to the next page in the exhibit: Stephen Pratt.

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