Thursday, November 01, 2007

Changing Wages for Ropewalk Workers

This evening the Boston Area Early American History Seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society tackled the question of the cost of living in Boston during the 1700s. How much money did it take for a poor person to survive? This is tough to calculate because of a wide range of variables: incomplete records, lack of complete details in the records that exist, changing prices, fluctuating currencies, different family situations, uncertain expenditures, and the bias of different sources.

During that conversation someone asked about workers’ wages, which prompted me to talk about the data in two accounting books from the Box & Austin ropewalk, documents now owned by the Winterthur museum in Delaware. John Box and Benjamin Austin owned and operated their rope factory in Boston’s West End during the mid-1700s.

Ropewalks and shipyards were the biggest proto-industrial businesses of the colonial period. They required a large infrastructure and fairly large workforce, including some highly skilled workers—the spinners. (In the picture above, from the Alexandria Archeology Museum, the spinner is the man at the rear walking backwards spinning a strand of hemp yarn from each hand. Now that’s skill.)

Often the owner of shipyards and ropewalks did not work alongside his men, and in some cases may never have learned their crafts. But he had the money, business knowledge, and customer contacts to run the firm, producing a clear management/labor distinction. According to his daughter, Box never learned how to spin rope, but he kept the accounts. According to later political rivals of his sons, Austin did make rope himself, so he was probably in charge of supervising the output.

Box’s account book for 1757-66 lists every ropewalk worker, what he was due in wages, what he accumulated in debts, and finally what he received. Early in the period covered by the book, most workers were paid “By Worke,” meaning by output: in 1758 each unit of work [which is unclear] was worth 5 shillings. After Sept 1760 all men were paid for the number of days out of six that they worked each week, occasionally with extra for “Jobbing.” The prevailing wage was 25 or 30 shillings per day.

Thus, James West earned £34.15.10 in September 1760 under the old system, and only £32.5.0 the following month, when he was paid by the day for the first time. Was this a better deal for him? That’s impossible to know because the record doesn’t state how many days West worked in September, or how many units he produced in October. Workers could work as many as six days of the week, but sometimes worked only one or two. I assume that overall Box & Austin thought the new payment method was better for their firm.

Before paying the workers, Box deducted for their debts. Charges to the workers’ accounts included “Sundrys” from the warehouse, firewood, gloves, pumps, bread, handkerchiefs, tea, sugar, “Shoes for ys Wife,” “1 years Rent of dwelling House,” “Victualing at my House,” “Pork,” and “Spinning Bands.” Thus, a man named Neal McNeal boarded with Box at £4.10 per week while earning 25 shillings each day.

Some men accumulated debt faster than they could earn wages. By October 1766 Samuel Tralaven owed £60 to his employer, including a whopping £11 “To a Beaver Hatt of Thos. H. Peck” the previous September. At the end of that period Tralaven was working less than full weeks and could barely sign his name; I wonder if he was debilitated by illness or drink.

One interesting name that popped up in this document is William Green, the ropemaker who started a fight with Pvt. Patrick Walker at Gray’s ropewalks on 2 Mar 1770, beginning a cycle of violence that led to the Boston Massacre three days later. Green’s employer, John Gray, fired him after that fight. The following January, Green started to work across town for Box & Austin at 25 shillings a day.


  1. Sorry to comment on a 5 year old post, but it just occurred to me that this wage seems way higher than I would have expected!

    Compare it with a British private earning 8 pence a day, or even a captain only got 10 shillings!

  2. It surprised me, too, and I've been wrestling with how to interpret the figures for years. One possibility is, of course, that I interpreted the data wrong—that the account book has a column for half-pence or something else that means every unit should be shifted over. Or did the ropewalk keep its accounts in devalued Old Tenor currency? Do the army wages calculate expenses differently? One of my motivations for this post was to call attention to this source at Winterthur so some other folks might look at it.

  3. I'm back on this again 6 years later with new thoughts; This has to be Old Tenor! Otherwise, a ropemaker could make twice as much as a ministers annual wage in just 6 months.

    If we assume that it's old tenor, £32.5.0 O.T. becomes £2.14.0 L.M. and year-round employment (if available) would earn about £32.8.0. Compare this with Robert Love, the working-class "warner" who had a salary of £40 and it all makes more sense!

    It also means that the beaver hatt cost £0.18.11 in real money, rather than £11 which is more than Copley charged for a "Kit-cat" Portrait! (£10.10.0)

  4. Yes, that seems to be the key. Thanks! Sometimes it seems remarkable that colonial American businesspeople managed at all, given all the mental calculations they had to do in a day.

  5. I’m researching Mary Pattison Irwin, who established a rope walk in Pittsburgh in 1795. She & her husband came from Northern Ireland. He fought on the colonists’ side & was gravely wounded at Paoli.

    A few yrs after establishing their ropewalk, which they’d registered/incorporated as John Irwin & Wife, he died. She was widowed, with 4 young children, running a rough business while 4,000 miles away from family & friends. She succeeded beyond belief, lifting subsequent generations into the Gilded Age/1% category. Her present day descendants although not as well off, clearly benefitted from the ‘head start’ her rope gave the family.

    Your post on ropewalks was illuminating, what especially struck me was your use of the term ‘proto - industrial’ Yes! Pittsburgh’s long been known as an industrial giant & I’ve been telling people that Mary was truly our 1st industrialist - although I realized that wasn’t quite the correct term. Thank you for for providing me with insight & a bit of vocabulary.