- Industrious in Their Station: Young People at Work in Urban America, 1720–1810 by Sharon Braslaw Sundue
Today’s young adults take far longer to achieve the markers of adult identity—leaving home, achieving economic independence, and forming a family—than did their counterparts half a century ago. In part, this is due to the extension of higher education, but also to the greater acceptance of cohabitation and premarital sex, the difficulty in finding a job that will support a family, and the increasing acceptance of a value system that views young adulthood as a time of exploration and self-discovery.
This book charts a shift that took place in the transition to adulthood between 1720 and 1810 in Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia. Challenging the view that young peoples’ labor experiences were largely static until the apprenticeship system broke down in the wake of the Revolution, due to the erosion of patriarchal power relations and the rise of proto-industrialization, this book argues, instead, that profound, if uneven, transformations took place during the eighteenth century. At the beginning of this period, work, not schooling, occupied a central place in the lives of urban youth, with some young people holding formal apprenticeships, while many others toiled as indentured or informally contracted servants or laborers without any promise of vocational training. During the mid-eighteenth century, the volatility of seaboard economies—as a result of integration [End Page 790] into transatlantic trade networks and wartime disruptions—and increases in the availability of adult laborers radically altered employment opportunities for the young. Parents with sufficient means embraced formal schooling for their sons as the favored strategy for strengthening their economic prospects in a shifting labor market, while the indigent found themselves increasingly marginalized in “dead-end” occupations. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century North, efforts to intensify agricultural and livestock production and increase participation in the market economy through small-scale household manufacturing, coupled with the growth of new manufacturing enterprises, heightened demand for the labor of poor children and youth, even as apprenticeship opportunities in middling-status crafts dwindled.
Rigorous and highly imaginative in method, the book draws upon a wide range of primary sources—including orphan and probate court records and lists of labor contracts, supplemented with social commentary—to substantiate its conclusions. The author uses wage rates to show that the value of boys’ unskilled labor equaled an adults’ around the age of sixteen. She also demonstrates conclusively the value of boys’ labor to middling families, and the opportunity costs of sending sons to school for prolonged periods.
Highly attentive to gender, race, class, and age, the book is masterful in demonstrating differences in the experience of underage and adult laborers; the sporadic nature of girls’ cash-earning activities; and the distinctive nature of girls’ schooling. The volume is equally attuned to regional differences, showing that Boston’s relative homogeneity, sluggish economy and disproportionate number of widows, made it the one city to embrace charity schools along European lines; that Charleston’s access to slaves undercut demand for impoverished white boys’ and girls’ labor; and that in Philadelphia ethnic division and a heavy demand for cheap, unskilled young labor severely restricted schooling opportunities for indigent youth.
Richly researched, sophisticated methodologically, and compellingly argued, the book brings together three fields of study too often treated separately: labor history, the history of education, and the history of youth. This work does, however, raise an issue that future scholars will need to explore. If we were to shift the focus away from parents and employers to the youth themselves, would we see greater autonomy of youthful economic decision-making over time? Did young peoples’ consciousness of themselves as independent economic actors increase in the era of the American Revolution?