Detail: Field of Onions at Wethersfield, Courtesy Wethersfield Historical Society

“Proper and Instructive Education”:

Children Bound to Labor in Early America

1-2 November 2002

McNeil Center for Early American Studies
University of Pennsylvania
3619 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA
Sponsored by the  McNeil Center for Early American Studies
and the Spencer Foundation
with additional assistance from 
the Departments of Economics and History at the University of Toledo.

Program | Registration Information | Lodging

In The Countryman's Lamentation On the Neglect of A Proper Education of Children (1762), the anonymous author touted the benefits of parents sending their children to live in more prosperous households for eight or ten years, so they might receive a proper and instructive education in useful skills and habits under the tutelage of a respectable master. Many parents in early America followed this advice by privately apprenticing their children to neighbors or relatives who acted in the capacity of masters. But when parents were unable or unwilling to arrange for this kind of practical training, local authorities stepped in and bound out children as servants. Under this arrangement, illegitimate, orphaned or destitute children were removed from their birth or temporary homes and raised to adulthood in more respectable homes. The master (head of household) was always obliged to provide the child servant with all the necessities of life as well as education and training in some manual skill. In return, the child was to live with, obey and labor for the master.

Historians of early American have long been aware of the practice of binding out children. Richard Morris described the legal context in Government and Labor in Early America (Columbia, 1946). William Towner was decades ahead of his time in looking at poor apprentices in Boston as part of his 1955 dissertation, "A Good Master Well Served: A Social History of Servitude in Massachusetts, 1620-1750." W. J. Rorabaugh examined one kind of bound child in the nineteenth century in The Craft Apprentice (Oxford, 1986).

This conference places bound children on center stage. It focuses on the widespread and varying practice of binding out poor children in early America, with papers that examine how the system was conducted in Quebec, New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Chesapeake, the Lower South, New Orleans, and the transappalachian frontier between the mid-1600s and the mid-1800s.

For additional information, contact the McNeil Center or the organizers:

Ruth Herndon, University of Toledo
John Murray, University of Toledo
MCEAS Programs