Poor Relief in Revolutionary Boston
Poor Relief in Revolutionary Boston
Boston’s Poor. Decades of war with France in the mid eighteenth century left Boston with a large population of widows and refugees and a permanent class of poor residents. Children of the indigent were “bound out” as apprentices. This was thought to be a good way of removing poor children from the relief rolls and reintegrating them into society. The city fathers of Boston were also troubled by the armies of transient poor that tramped from town to town seeking relief at the almshouses. Boston authorities established a practice of “warning out” transients—that is, publicly declaring them ineligible for poor relief. The city rejected thousands in the 1750s during the French and Indian War, when refugees from war zones swelled the ranks of the transient poor. In addition job seekers from Massachusetts villages and towns appeared in increasing numbers in Boston. Warned out of one town, these mostly young and single transients would move on to the next, either to find relief at an almshouse or seasonal farmwork. Some found work as servants, but most were fleeing from servitude or at the end of their terms of indenture had taken to the highway in search of work.
The Manufactory House . In Puritan Boston the religious and governing classes had a hard time accepting that poverty could be the result of anything but individual laziness. But by mid century it was apparent that many were chronically without work due to the severe dislocations of war and economic fluctuations. A typically Puritan solution was tried: establishment of work-houses or manufactories where the poor, particularly women, could produce goods to defray the cost of their upkeep. A few schemes tried around mid century attempted to establish manufactories of cloth. In 1753 a Linen Manufactory House opened, supported by private subscriptions, with three hundred spinsters tending the looms. Boston’s ministers supported the operation in sermons and appealed for donations. But the manufactory was never self-supporting, and in 1758 it was forced to close due to lack of funds. The idea was not a bad one, but cheap British imports easily undercut home manufactures in price. There was also the factor of resentment among the poor women of Boston. Working in a manufactory took them away from their families and homes, which proved a great hardship. Women were more willing to spin cloth at home, and the poor in fact often re-sorted to this sort of labor, working for local merchants at low piece rates. They deserted the manufactories de-spite the exhortations of ministers and the threats of city officials to cut off relief for the poor.
Home Manufactures and Work Relief . Bostonians once again sought to put the poor to work spinning cloth in the 1760s during the boycotts of British imports. Wealthy Tories pointed to previous failures at cloth manufacture and disparaged the efforts of the Patriots. A prominent Boston radical and entrepreneur, William Molineux, organized a plan under which poor women could manufacture cloth in their homes. He hired school mistresses to teach poor women to spin. Molineux gained a great deal of goodwill among the poor for allowing them to work at home. He combined defiance of the royal governor with attempts at bettering the social welfare of the city. This effort met with only mixed success, but poor women were heartened, knowing that the wives of wealthy Patriots were also spinning cloth in their homes.