Digital Commonwealth

Boston (Mass.) Overseers of the Poor Indentures, 1734-1805

Boston Public Library

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From 1630-1692, Boston's poor were the responsibility of the town Selectmen who believed that the welfare of the individual should come second to the religious and secular needs of the community and, conversely, that the community had a responsibility to the welfare of the individual. Thus, poverty was viewed in both financial and moral terms and the only way seen to remedy it was through a well-regulated family. Consequently, the children of parents who needed poor relief or who were not being raised according to the religious and social standards of the community were removed from the home and bound out to a master who would provide daily maintenance and basic education in exchange for labor.

The Boston Overseers of the Poor was established in 1692 by an act that called for children who had no visible means of support to be placed in either a home or in some kind of employment that would benefit both them and the public. In addition, this act stipulated that the female child should be bound out until she was eighteen, or time of marriage, and the male until he was 21. In 1720, it became the responsibility of the master to teach their male apprentices reading, writing, and later arithmetic, and their female apprentices how to read. Eventually, females were taught arithmetic and how to write. By 1735, there were twelve Overseers in Boston, one for each ward, whose responsibility it was to remove children from families that were poor or where parents were considered unsuited to raising children or from the Almshouse, and to bind them out to appropriate masters. There were about 1,100 children bound out by the Overseers between 1734 and 1805.

This collection contains indentures that document these efforts of the Overseers of the Poor of the City of Boston to manage the children of the poor. While the majority of the children were bound out to do housework, including knitting and sewing and farmwork, the indentures also document the kinds of trades that were open to young males in the 18th century such as weaver, shoemaker, and blacksmith. In addition, the towns and families into which the children were put into service as well as the attitudes of child rearing and literacy are also documented. Finally, the indentures serve as a record of the influence of Puritan values on social welfare in Boston.

Critical funding to support long-term preservation of and enhanced public access to Boston Public Library collections, including this one, was provided by David McCullough's Yale class of 1955 and the Associates of the Boston Public Library.

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