As we in the United States celebrate our nation’s birthday, it’s interesting to look back at workers in colonial times.
In 1776, America was in a good economic situation. It was one of the wealthiest nations even at an early age! It had the highest per capita income of any major nation of its time. It had been 150 years since the first settlers so it provided time for the country to grow. Farming, including that of the plantation owners in the southern colonies, was a major occupation. They were able to ship their crops back to England and other countries to make good incomes that would allow them to spend on education and clothing. Lawyers and tavern owners also did quite well for themselves. Although most women maintained the home some had to do more than just maintaining. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and many husbands were away building a new nation or fighting in the war so their wives had to be the managers of the family income. Some women also had their own shops for making hats or dresses. There were those, too, who were mid-wives. There were also those who were on the battlefield to search for food, do sewing, laundry and other necessities they normally did at home.
Skilled trades were important jobs in colonial America. Blacksmithing, milling, wig making, printers, bricklayers and cobblers were just some of the jobs needed. Colonists relied on themselves for most everything they needed. Some took in apprentices so others could learn a trade but it could also be seen as inexpensive labor. Apprenticeship in colonial America laid some foundation for today’s apprenticeship jobs. Apprentices started at a much younger age. Some were as young as 6. They lived with the Master and family. Some would do regular household chores while they learned about the trade instead of going to a regular school. They would not be paid while they were apprentices but they would be given room and board as well as clothing. Apprenticeships could last as long as four years or ten years or until they were 21 years old.
Unfortunately, there was slavery, too. Slaves, human beings, were treated as being inferior and were purchased and sold by other human beings who saw themselves as much more superior. It was done so plantation owners could save costs as they sold their goods to other areas and countries and increased their wealth. Men, women and children were enslaved. They worked long, hard hours for nothing. Some were whipped, beaten and killed no matter what age or gender. The working conditions were so horrible and so very oppressive. Families could be broken up and sold to others. If the Master died, there were good chances families would be split. Once children were able to walk around they would be forced to do small tasks until they were old enough to take on the bigger jobs. Not only did America experience slave labor, it experienced child slave labor.
We in the United States celebrate the 4th of July with much fanfare but it’s important to remember life in colonial times and how far we have come but how much more we have left to do. Basic respect for human life and individuals is still needed today. Just as early Americans worked for survival, we work to survive today. Hard work has always been part of America’s heritage but let’s do it together by treating each other not as inferior but with the respect and dignity everyone deserves and listening to one another.
Everybody, no matter what age, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, should be treated as the Declaration of Independence stated, “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…”