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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The American Workman in 1784

By John Bach McMaster (1852–1932)

[From A History of the People of the United States.—Vol. I. 1883.]

THERE can, however, be no doubt that a wonderful amelioration has taken place since that day in the condition of the poor. Their houses were meaner, their food was coarser, their clothing was of commoner stuff; their wages were, despite the depreciation that has gone on in the value of money, lower by one half than at present. A man who performed what would now be called unskilled labor, who sawed wood, who dug ditches, who mended the roads, who mixed mortar, who carried boards to the carpenter and bricks to the mason, or helped to cut hay in the harvest-time, usually received as the fruit of his daily toil two shillings. Sometimes when the laborers were few he was paid more, and became the envy of his fellows if, at the end of a week, he took home to his family fifteen shillings, a sum now greatly exceeded by four dollars. Yet all authorities agree that in 1784 the hire of workmen was twice as great as in 1774.

On such a pittance it was only by the strictest economy that a mechanic kept his children from starvation and himself from jail. In the low and dingy rooms which he called his home were wanting many articles of adornment and of use now to be found in the dwellings of the poorest of his class. Sand sprinkled on the floor did duty as a carpet. There was no glass on his table, there was no china in his cupboard, there were no prints on his wall. What a stove was he did not know, coal he had never seen, matches he had never heard of. Over a fire of fragments of boxes and barrels, which he lit with the sparks struck from a flint, or with live coals brought from a neighbor’s hearth, his wife cooked up a rude meal and served it in pewter dishes. He rarely tasted fresh meat as often as once in a week, and paid for it a much higher price than his posterity. Everything, indeed, which ranked as a staple of life was very costly. Corn stood at three shillings the bushel, wheat at eight and sixpence, an assize of bread was fourpence, a pound of salt pork was tenpence. Many other commodities now to be seen on the tables of the poor were either quite unknown or far beyond the reach of his scanty means. Unenviable is the lot of that man who cannot, in the height of the season, when the wharfs and markets are heaped with baskets and crates of fruit, spare three cents for a pound of grapes or five cents for as many peaches, or, when Sunday comes round, indulge his family with watermelons or cantaloupes. One hundred years ago the wretched fox-grape was the only kind that found its way to market, and was the luxury of the rich. Among the fruits and vegetables of which no one had then even heard are cantaloupes, many varieties of peaches and pears, tomatoes and rhubarb, sweet corn, the cauliflower, the egg-plant, head lettuce, and okra. On the window-benches of every tenement-house may be seen growing geraniums and verbenas, flowers not known a century ago. In truth, the best-kept gardens were then rank with hollyhocks and sunflowers, roses and snowballs, lilacs, pinks, tulips, and, above all, the Jerusalem cherry, a plant once much admired, but now scarcely seen.

If the food of an artisan would now be thought coarse, his clothes would be thought abominable. A pair of yellow buckskin or leathern breeches, a checked shirt, a red flannel jacket, a rusty felt hat cocked up at the corners, shoes of neat’s-skin set off with huge buckles of brass, and a leathern apron, comprised his scanty wardrobe. The leather he smeared with grease to keep it soft and flexible. His sons followed in his footsteps, or were apprenticed to neighboring tradesmen. His daughter went out to service. She performed, indeed, all the duties at present exacted from women of her class; but with them were coupled many others rendered useless by the great improvement that has since taken place in the conveniences of life. She mended the clothes, she did up the ruffs, she ran on errands from one end of the town to the other, she milked the cows, made the butter, walked ten blocks for a pail of water, spun flax for the family linen, and, when the year was up, received ten pounds for her wages. Yet, small as was her pay, she had, before bestowing herself in marriage on the footman or the gardener, laid away in her stocking enough guineas and joes to buy a few chairs, a table, and a bed.