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.