The Workhouse was designed for the poor who had the ability to work. Any profits earned from the labor of the residents were expected to cover the overhead of maintaining the Workhouse and, hopefully, the Almshouse. The principal job required of Workhouse residents in Massachusetts was the picking of oakhum, which entailed separating loose fibers from old rope to sell as caulking. The hope of the Overseers of the Poor for the Workhouse was that, according to Nellis, the Workhouse experience would “simultaneously correct the idle poor and instill in them a habit of industry by obliging them to work to earn their keep, and a little more to boot, under strict codes of industrial discipline.”
‘The following are the regulations that were drawn up by the Overseers of the Poor under the authority of the 1735 Workhouse Act. These were presented to a committee of the Town Meeting and amended and passed by the Town Meeting of October 12, 1739. The text is in manuscript in Overseers, box 13, folder 1, and in published form in the Boston Records 12: 234-40. According to Wiberly, 90, these are the only surviving “detailed workhouse regulations from the colonial period.” While details of the Workhouse population do not exist, as they do for the Almshouse, the Workhouse rules offer a rare glimpse into the behavioral standards and the operational regiment of an eighteenth-century American workhouse that was intended to employ gainfully the chronically unemployed or unemployable, and to correct and rehabilitate the idle poor. It is not known how much, if any, of the corporal punishment noted here was ever carried out. This is a slightly abridged copy of the Rules and Orders:
The Eighteenth-Century Records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor (Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts). Edited by Eric Nellis and Anne Decker Cecere. Charlottesville: University Of Virginia Press, 2001.