“Binding Out” was a labor system that connected host families with poor boys and girls willing to serve their masters and mistresses as apprentices or servants. The average term of service was just over ten years. The first child bound out in Massachusetts was in 1636, when Benjamin Eaton was indentured to Bridget Fuller of Plymouth County.
In 1692, by order of the Massachusetts General Court (Legislature), town selectmen or Overseers of the Poor were given the power to bind out poor children with the consent of two Justices of the Peace. Later legislation required host families to ensure that male apprentices were taught to read and write, while the girls were only required to be taught to read. (See samples of actual indentured contracts and related questions below).
Each town’s Overseers of the Poor were responsible for reviewing the suitability of host families in taking indentures. Character references from respected local officials, as well as the mother’s permission, were usually required.
In Boston, the majority of the children bound out were from the almshouse, rather than from their family home. There was a thriving market at times for indentured children. The Boston Overseers of the Poor records show that between 1756 and 1806 over 1100 children were apprenticed . Boys had opportunities to learn a number of trades, although over 40% were bound out to learn husbandry (farming). Girls were overwhelmingly indentured for only one occupation – domestic servitude . Overall, almost 75% of all children bound out were sent outside Boston. Of the children who were bound out by the Town of Boston, about 70% went to one of four counties: Suffolk, Middlesex, Hampshire, and Worcester. Of these indentured children, many went on to live very successful lives. Probably the most famous of these was Isaiah Thomas, the renowned printer and founder of the American Antiquarian Society. In 1756, at age eight, Isaiah was bound out to Zacharaiah Fowle, a printer. In 1771, Thomas himself took in Anthony Haswell, aged fifteen, as an apprentice printer until Anthony reached the age of twenty-one.
Not all pauper children were apprenticed. Many lived in Almshouses under deplorable conditions. According to Kelso, “in 1769 a Committee of the town government of Boston studying the problems of pauperism recommended a grant of 500 pounds to inaugurate a series of spinning schools ‘to learn such children to spin (free of charge) as the Overseers shall from time to time certife [sic] are proper objects of such charity’.”
In 1821 The Boston Almshouse reported as residents, 77 children, 78 sick persons, 9 maniacs and idiots and 155 unclassified residents.
Records of Apprenticeship
Take a look at these sample records of apprenticeship:
1. What is the name of the apprentice’s parents or guardian?
2. What is the name of the apprentice’s master and mistress?
3. In which community do they live?
4. What type of trade will they apprentice now learn?
5. How many years of apprenticeship will be served?
6. What are four kinds of provisions or services that the master or mistress guarantee to provide for the apprentice during his or her term of service?
7. List five rules by which the apprentice must abide:
8. What, if any, are the provisions for schooling?
9. What, if anything, will the apprentice receive from the master or mistress upon completion of his or her term of service?