Farmers of the Poor
December 30, 2010 11:59 AM   Subscribe

For all the faults of the poorhouse, the system it replaced was perceived to be even worse. In post-Revolution America, if you were poor, you could be "farmed out" at public auction to the lowest bidder.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, an influx of paupers could wreck a town's finances. The first line of defense was "warning out"—a Colonial-era formality used to restrict a town's liability for the maintenance of the poor. A family moving into town would be warned by the constable within a few weeks or months to leave. Many of those warned out were respectable people who fully intended to settle and contribute to the community. But if any fell on hard times, a record of their having been warned out could absolve the town of any duty to provide support.

If an indigent person was found to have settlement in the town, relief might be provided for in the spring—often in early May—at a public vendue or "outcry." The New England Method called for a town's paupers to be auctioned off, individually or as a group, to whoever would pledge to maintain them by the week or the year for the lowest rate.
Here, ranged about the table, sat the fathers of the town and such of those as by hard living and coarse thinking had arrived at a place in life where they could speculate upon the bodily vigor and the probable capacity for hard labor of a half-witted boy, a forlorn-looking widow, or a halt and tottering old man.
The event was "a ceremony much resembling the slave auctions of the South, with this difference, if a slave was very old and feeble, he sold at a low figure, while a pauper of the same class sold at a high figure." Able-bodied paupers were sold cheap and worked hard. "Persons were sometimes bid off as low as from twelve to fifteen cents a week," one Maine historian commented in 1886. "Wonderful people some of the forefathers must have been."

In Dublin, New Hampshire, "[t]he experiment was first tried in 1795, and was so successful that the practice was continued, certainly till 1822."
It is one of the most exceptionable practices that ever obtained in the town. It was aggravated tenfold by the custom of furnishing, at the expense of the town, on those occasions, intoxicating drinks, for those who were present, serving to make the most prompt bidders of a class of men the least fitted to have charge of the bartered victims.
The practice spread from New England to the Midwest, and—despite efforts to ensure that the paupers were properly maintained—its flaws became everywhere evident. There was little incentive for "farmers of the poor" to provide more than the bare minimum of support. Cases were reported of men refusing care to a stepparent or stepchild in hopes that the town would offer a subsidy. The aged and infirm "in comfortable quarters with families whom they liked" were forced to move to save a few tax dollars. Parents and children were often bid off to different households. By the mid-1800s, the similarities to Southern slavery could not be ignored. Samuel Hayes Elliott's semi-fictional indictment New England's Chattels: or, Life in the Northern Poor-House was published in 1858, its third and 32nd chapters devoted to the issue of public vendue of the poor.
Free white men, women, and children, educated—once, if not now respectable—voters, tax payers, the ill-tides of fortune bearing them to the town hall, they are "passed upon" as paupers and sold out—work, wages, food, clothing, body and soul—for the year, the town agreeing to pay so much money to him who will take the risk and do the best he can with it—working them as he likes, clothing them as he deems it pecuniarily safe, and so feeding them likewise; and in the event of sickness and death, quietly, and at such charges as he deems it wise for him, consigning them to the grave.
Elliott's book could easily have been mistaken for "a Southern retort upon the North for Uncle Tom," but reviewers remained levelheaded: "If the stories are founded on facts, of course right-minded men at the North cannot object to their publication, and ought to be thankful that their attention is drawn to them."

Indiana was the first state to ban public vendue, in 1834, but it lingered elsewhere for decades longer. As the practice fell out of favor, the poorhouse took its place in most rural areas—a development that once was viewed as a sign of progress.
For [poorhouses] reflected an attempt to mitigate the harshness of contemporary poor-relief practice by ending the auctioning of the poor to the lowest bidder and stopping the shunting of the poor from town to town regardless of their health or the weather. To their sponsors, poorhouses appeared an ideal way to accomplish a broad array of economic, disciplinary, rehabilitative, and humanitarian objectives.
posted by Knappster (8 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
Very interesting history that I knew nothing about. Thank you for the very in-depth post.
posted by blucevalo at 12:27 PM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wow, what a great post. I had no idea.
posted by mochapickle at 12:59 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you just imagine what the mortgage companies of today could do with that?
posted by caddis at 1:49 PM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Excellent post. This is not the picture that I had in my mind of life in the early 1800's in the good 'ole US of A.
posted by JParker at 1:51 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is utterly fascinating. Thanks so much for posting. I had no idea that this ever went on.
posted by hippybear at 2:23 PM on December 30, 2010

This was informative! I had no idea this went on!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 2:46 PM on December 30, 2010

Knappster, so glad you took that HuffPo article as a jumping-off point. So many Americans complacent about whittling down or even doing away with Social Security seem to have far too much faith in their 401ks and no knowledge at all of what life was like before we had a social safety net.
posted by emjaybee at 3:32 PM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had a boss who had problems with the concept of a social safety net. Je used to visit Goa often. He did know a little something about India, so I pointed out that Calcutta is a good place to see what happens when there is no social safety net. So are an awful lot of places in Africa.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 5:07 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

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