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Not vicious

Not vicious

One of the problems with writing historical fiction (there are ever so many) is that I don't get to read anything fun anymore. Not that I'm saying Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America wasn't a hoot. But I've forgotten what it's like to get wrapped up in a story. I've been living mainly with facts and figures for about six years. And facts and figures are often quite horrible. Remember that sentence from Age of Homespun that stopped me from reading further?

It took forty years for the English to subdue the Abenaki.

Well, here's another from Children Bound to Labor:

Needless to say, any idea that slave parents had custody rights in their children would have interfered dramatically with the slave market. 

I had never thought about slavery in terms of custody rights before. I knew slaves had no say over their families being separated, but I don't generally go around seeing the world through the lens of custody rights - who got to enjoy those rights, and who didn't. It illuminates a lot. Poor white parents didn't get those rights either, particularly women. If you were not deemed able to care for your family, local officials could take a child or two or five from you without your consent and give them to other people to work; as pointed out in the book, they had "explicit authority to rearrange a family." The families of slaves, free blacks, and poor whites were not seen as a unit, though it is clear from the records left behind that they thought of themselves as a unit and tried to reunite or at the very least advocate for each other.

What interested me the most was how pre-Revolutionary society treated this system of involuntary labor like it was the solution to a problem that was just always there. "The poor will always be with us," and whatnot. But the poor need not always be with us; the poor are often created, and then kept poor, because it is advantageous to the not-poor.

Free black children were a casualty of this. The term "orphan" had two meanings: a child whose parents were dead, or a child with a mother but not a father. Which children were likely to have mothers, but not "recognized" fathers? Black children. Because if one of their parents was a slave, which was likely, their parents could not marry. The law, in that case, created orphans because it was more important to avoid recognizing any sort of racial equality than to go to the trouble of rearranging families so that people didn't starve in the street. (The book notes that society's preferred way to deal with poor free blacks was to incarcerate them, but for the children they stuck to mere indentured servitude.)

Both black and white children who lost their fathers were at a higher risk of being taken from their mothers and bound to someone else. Without a husband, women were economically hobbled: "Custom divided the various forms of labor between men and women and valued male tasks significantly above those of females. . . . [F]or the equivalent number of days and hours worked, women received only one-third to two-fifths the income that men did." Some women bound out their children voluntarily so that they could be a wetnurse to someone else's child - a sacrifice they made so that everyone in the family could eat, even if they were not together. Again, this was a created problem: it was more important to keep women in check than to make it possible for a single mother to take care of her own family.

This woman was probably a slave, not an indentured servant, but the experience of having no choice but to care for someone else's children instead of your own probably feels the same.

Speaking of women, this is another one of those sentences that stopped me:

[M]agistrates and masters designed pauper apprenticeship to give most boys a shot at independent adulthood and to keep most girls in dependent positions as housewives and servants.

White privilege and male privilege come through very clearly in this book, and it's astonishing the number of other details that are still directly relevant to our society today. Republicanism - the opposition to tyranny in all its forms, whether it be monarchy or patriarchy - helped indentured servitude into its decline. We've replaced it with social assistance programs, and we go well out of our way to keep parents and children together. But indentured servitude was not just about protecting children from neglect and poverty; it was also about social control. Society feared the poor and felt their behavior required molding - take for example the almshouse steward who took care to describe a future apprentice as "not vicious and can be reclaimed." You do not explicitly say someone is not something unless you know others will have an expectation that they are. In this case, there was an expectation that a poor black girl would be vicious solely because she was poor and black. Just as in 1856, when that little girl was deemed specifically "not vicious," there's still a strong belief that those in poverty somehow deserve it and should never quite be allowed out of it, lest their strange ways corrupt the upper classes. Even though, then as now, the populations suffering from poverty are the same populations for which society purposely makes life harder. If someone is suffering, you can be sure it is to the advantage of someone else.

Not vicious

Not vicious

Not vicious

Like I said, this book was a hoot! Historians, I increasingly feel, are like Virgil, guiding us through hell. Is that too dramatic? Let me just say that in order to find a picture for this post I innocently used the search term "child labor" without realizing I was going to get a lot of historical images of childbirth. You guys, history was horrible. My next book is going to be about animals. They're nicer.


Quotes from Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray's edited collection, Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America. Cornell University Press, 2009.

Images in order of appearance:

The Cotton Pickers. Winslow Homer, 1876

Portrait of a Nurse and Child, about 1850, artist unknown. Click through to read a little bit of cultural background on the photo.

[Portrait of a seated black child with arms crossed] 1857 - 1858, artist unknown

The Captive Slave. John Philip Simpson, 1827
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Mum Bett, aka Elizabeth Freeman, aged 70. Painted by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, aged 23. Watercolor on ivory, painted circa 1812. Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston
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Four months later, four waffles to the wind

Four months later, four waffles to the wind

And I said,  “What's a crocus?"

And I said, “What's a crocus?"