Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Guest Blogger M.P. Barker on "The Rules"

While Regina and Marissa have been touring you through life among the upper crust, my novel, A Difficult Boy (Holiday House), takes a down-and-dirty look at two American farm boys trapped in indentured servitude. Here’s a little peek at a Nineteenteen experience that’s a world away from the life of the genteel young Victorian lady.

Being indentured, apprenticed, or “bound out” was a common experience for kids whose families wanted them to learn a trade, needed to settle debts, or (in the case of impoverished orphans) whose families were simply non-existent. A combination of trade school, poor relief, and foster care, indentured servitude had a long and not-always-savory history in America. I thought it would be interesting to look at the rules you’d have to follow as an indentured servant. The standard legal form for apprentices or indentured servants didn’t change a lot from the 18th century to the 19th. Here’s a 1753 agreement between Samuel Livermore and Daniel Burt from the archives where I work at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum (picture courtesy of The Connecticut Valley Historical Museum.)

Your bond would usually be signed by a parent or guardian or by the town’s overseers of the poor, if you had no family. In this case, Samuel’s mother signs on his behalf. Although Samuel alleged agrees “of his own free Will and Accord,” his family’s debts or his parents’ desire to boot him out of the house so he can make something of himself probably compel him to this agreement.

I love how the agreement says that Samuel is going to learn his master’s “Art, Trade or Mistery,” which makes it sound as though Samuel is joining some kind of secret society or learning some arcane craft. Actually, Burt’s trade is the very non-mysterious one of a “husbandman”—a farmer. Samuel is referred to as a “yeoman,” so he’s a farmer, too. Since farming is probably not much of a mystery to Samuel, it’s a safe bet that this agreement is more likely about debt than about job-training.

Folks usually think of apprenticeships as lasting seven years, but they really varied quite a lot; Samuel’s term is four and a half years. During that time, Samuel has to “faithfully” and “gladly” obey all his master’s commands (I wonder how they enforce the “gladly” part). “[H]e shall do no Damage to his said master…he shall not waste his said masters Goods, nor lend them unlawfully to any…” This means that Burt can charge Samuel’s family for any damages that Samuel incurs during his term of service, or deduct the damages from Samuel’s final wages.

Now comes the fun part—or rather, the no-fun part: “…he shall not commit Fornication, nor contract Matrimony within the said Term: At Cards, Dice or any other unlawful Game, he shall not play…he shall not absent himself by Day or by Night from his said Masters Service without his Leave; nor haunt Alehouses, Taverns, or (horror of horrors!) Play-houses, but in all Things behave himself as a faithful Apprentice ought to do.”

The rules Burt has to follow, you’ll notice, are considerably fewer: “And the said Daniel Burt Doth…Promise to Teach and Instruct…in the Art, Trade or Calling of an Husbandman…(if the said Apprentice be capable to Learn).” Notice how neatly this offers the boss an out if Samuel proves too stupid to learn his work. But at least Samuel gets: “Sufficient Meat Drink apparel Working & Lodging fitting for an apprentice…” and Burt agrees “…to teach or Cause to be taught sd. Apprentice to read write & cypher if capable of learning during the said Term.” The requirement that the apprentice be taught the three Rs was common in New England, whose Puritan-based culture highly valued literacy.

So, after four and a half years of glad obedience and farm work, no gambling, no boozing, no fornicating, and no fun, what does Samuel get? “Thirteen Pounds Six Shillings & Eight Pence Lawfull money of New England & two good Suits of apparel from head to foot suitable for such an Apprentice.”

According to the currency converter at http://www.measuringworth.com/, that would be £1,763.71 today, or about $3,503.89. Imagine working unpaid at McDonald’s for four and a half years, then being sent out into the big wide world with two new suits (brand-new from Wal-mart) and $3,500 in your pocket and told, “Okay, kid, you’re on your own.” Life just doesn’t get any better than this!

Thank you, Michele! It's been great having you as our first guest blogger, and we wish you all success with A Difficult Boy!


Barrie said...

Michele, this is so fascinating. Amazing to me all the details you historical writers know and weave into your books.

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, M.P.! What a tough life those kids must have had. You really bring that to life in your book.

M.P. Barker said...

Yeah, it was tough for many kids, though your boss wouldn't always be mean and nasty. If you were a really poor kid with no family and your boss/master turned out to be a decent sort, you would probably feel pretty lucky to be indentured rather than stuck on a poor farm. So it could be a mixture of curses and blessings, kind of like foster care today (except with none of the oversight--and even today, with all the social services people and everything looking over foster parents' shoulders, things still can go very, very bad, as we see in the newspapers all the time).