Last week we in the U. S. celebrated Independence Day or 4th of July, the celebration of our country’s birthday. It’s a great summer time holiday with family, friends, cook outs and fireworks! For many people it’s a freedom celebration because it represents the freedom we all expect and want for ourselves and our country. We may think about events that led to Independence Day or about the leaders that helped create the United States of America but what we don’t normally think about are the lives of ordinary people, or workers, in early America.
Life was not necessarily glorious and free like colonial America is sometimes portrayed. Most of the work was done in farming, shipbuilding and other associated work, fishing, skilled trades and other industries. Some people were paid for their work much as it is done now but that wasn’t true for everybody. Before the Revolutionary War, labor in America was in short supply. In order to satisfy the labor needs, people were brought from the British Commonwealth, other European countries and western Africa and, unfortunately, some people came under false pretenses or against their will. For over 200 years before people came to America, Africans were sold as slave labor. Europeans also were forced against their will to become slaves or indentured servants. Husbands, wives, children were all sold and split up. Today we would call this human trafficking. Some were later eligible to obtain their freedom but many, mostly the Africans sold for slavery to work on plantations in the southern colonies, were unable to obtain their freedom.
British prisoners were also sent to help with labor shortages, and because the British government thought their country had too many citizens, they pushed low-income citizens to start a new life in America.
For those that were free, wages were higher than Great Britain. America definitely became the Land of Opportunity for those with a skill. Some were involved in blacksmithing, glass making, lumber mills, brick making and many other trades. The need was plentiful as people were making wages to purchase goods and services.
Apprenticeship was also used as a form of labor. Children as young as 14 were given by their parents to a sponsor who would teach a child a craft until that child reached the age of 21. Once apprentices reached the age of 21, they were no longer obligated to their sponsor. Sponsors usually provided some schooling, housing and clothing.
As wages continued to increase, employers had difficulty being able to pay them and complained. Local governments would try to address the wage problem by various measures such as ceiling wages. Sometimes instead of paying wages, land was given which increased the need for farming and more labor.
Today we think of women working outside the home to make a family living. In colonial America, much of the work women did was inside the home to clothe and feed the family. Men and women didn’t necessarily marry for love but married for convenience. A woman was sometimes seen as a necessity for doing some of the work inside the home. Women wove material for clothing. They made candles for lighting. Women also oversaw the farming on the family land. They worked the fields to grow wheat or looked after the livestock to make sure meat was available throughout the year. Life in colonial America required everyone to work to survive. While some were able to have indentured servants, others did their own work. Equality was not a word used as we use it today. There were definite differences between the work a man did and what a woman did.
Technology in our time is the internet and AI but in early America technology was lumber mills and the use of water, wind and fire. Technology in colonial times was defined as being more hand-made and not made through the use of computers and other equipment like we have now.
Because of the shortage of labor, technology was used especially with the lumber mills. Sawmills could easily produce way more than two men working together. The first building to be erected in a community was a sawmill. Wood was plentiful and an excellent resource. Most of the major industries relied on it because it was so pliable and it created many new uses and products. Wood helped to build not just homes and home goods but ships and other maritime needs. Wood particles also helped with soap and glass making. Wood, of course, was also used for heating and cooking.
Water provided much needed assistance to farmers because it could be used to power gristmills which was an important technology for farmers because it helped save manpower for them. Once again, because of a shortage in labor, grinding the wheat from the farmers’ fields did not have to be done by hand. The importance of mills to colonial communities cannot be overstated. Since farming was a primary industry, many communities were built around mills which helped to make a financial impact to the community. Those that could build a mill were expert carpenters with varied skills. Blacksmiths may have also helped but millers knew explicitly how a mill needed to be constructed so that milling in itself was a prestigious job with excellent pay.
Fire offered more technology advancements. The availability of wood, iron ore and limestone helped to increase the amount of metal produced in colonial America. Iron became the third largest exported item. Only the wheat ground from the gristmills and the wood were ahead of it. Metal provided early Americans with additional technology needs such as tools or horse shoes for their horses which were a means of transportation or to assist with farming needs. Guns were also manufactured out of metal and that technology helped with food resources. The problem with ironmaking was the expense so investors were needed instead of being able to own the business outright. Large amounts of land were needed and that land had to be close to the main three components of metal. In addition, the equipment necessary to produce metal products was expensive. Because of the required amount of land, most ironworkers and their families lived farther away from communities and that caused them to be more dependent on themselves for food and shelter. Ironmaking provided good wages but because of the seclusion, it created a labor shortage in the profession with many quitting their jobs.
We rarely think about life in pre-Revolutionary War in America but we need to think about those who came here to start this country and what they endured. It took a lot of courage, determination and hard work to survive in America but it also brought innovation, a desire to improve, and eventually the freedom to do, work and think as we want. Some may be disenchanted or dissatisfied with the America and its way of life but I think it’s worth celebrating and reflecting where we’ve come from.