A comparison of american slaves and english agricultural workers, 1750-1875

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most of what he or she eats, not just an incidental as (wheat) bread is in many contemporary Americans' diets. Anyway, Jeffries was not discussing grain substitution at all. Unlike most aristocrats, the laborers engaged in heavy physical work needed serious bulk in their diet in order to have sufficient calories to sustain their efforts, but their food need not be unusually hard to digest or unpalatably coarse after its preparation to fulfill their needs. Indeed, according to Young, food that was too bulky might slow down the laborers eating it. As E.P. Thompson confirms: "There is a suggestion that labourers accustomed to wheaten bread actually could not work--suffered from weakness, indigestion, or nausea--if forced to change to rougher mixtures."42 Although these complaints were likely partially psychosomatic, they still show the laborers preferred less-coarse grain in their diet.

Admittedly, the southern farmworkers' partiality for the white wheaten loaf was rather unwise from a modern dietician's viewpoint, as Olmsted observed: "No doubt a coarser bread would be more wholesome, but it is one of the strongest prejudices of the English peasant, that brown bread is not fit for human beings." This comment raises the issue of taking into account the laborers' definitions of "good conditions" before judging these by purely modern criteria. Snell discusses this issue at length. If Hodge placed a strong priority on eating fine white wheat bread, outsiders are presumptuous to rearrange his life for him, saying he should like what they judge to be "good for him," even though objective reasons justify the would-be imposition, i.e., the health advantages of increasing the amount of bran in the daily diet. The threat to the status of English laborers posed by coarser or non-wheaten bread in times of dearth was rather irrational, but it still was probably more sensible than a contemporary preference among the young for designer brand jeans or sneakers over store brands of similar quality. The "Brown Bread Act's" attempts to force laborers to consume bread made of wholemeal flour provoked riots even during the terrible 1800-1801 agricultural year. In Surrey and Sussex in southern England, the resistance to this law was especially strong; unsurpisingly, it lasted less than two months.43

The Monotony of the Farmworkers' Diet in the South of England

The southern English agricultural workers' diet was monotonous, like the slaves'. In the Salisbury area (1850) Caird found it largely consisted of water, bread, some potatoes, flour with a little butter, and possibly a little bacon. He reports what sounds like a prisoner's meal: "The supper very commonly consists of bread and water." In 1840s Wiltshire, Somerville found two laborers who could not afford bacon and vegetables with every dinner on eight shillings a week. Following a recent wage reduction, "they did not know how they would with seven [shillings]." In Wooburn parish, even in an apple orchard area most laborers did not earn enough to make apple pies! Years later (c. 1875), in this same general area, Jefferies still commented while noting improvement: "A basketful of apples even from the farmer's orchard [as a gift] is a treat to the children, for, though better fed than formerly, their diet is necessarily monotonous, and such fruit as may be grown in the cottage garden is, of course, sold." Near Monmouth, Olmsted ran into a laborer who, although he also had a pig and a small potato patch, "oft-times . . . could get nothing more than dry bread for his family to eat."44 Thomas Smart, a Bedfordshire laborer, and his family subsisted upon garden-grown potatoes, bread, and cheese, with a little bacon occasionally, supplemented by tea and a little sugar. At times he went without meat for a month. Milk was difficult to buy from the local farmers.45 The hot dinner laborers had around noon on Sunday Jeffries described as their "the great event" for the day. Of course, beer certainly emerged in Hodge's diet around harvest time, and often not just then. The alcoholic part of the laborers' diets provoked the rural middle and upper classes into nearly endless moralizing, at least about its abuses that caused the father's wages to be wasted in beerhouses and a lack of labor discipline. Due to the near absence of meat, this diet was arguably less satisfying than slaves', except that its bread often was purchased baker's bread. This bread, or even what the laborer's wife made at home, was a much more carefully prepared and refined product than the cornmeal the slaves often had to pound into a crude hoecake or johnnycake (cornbread). As Olmsted (c. 1851) observed while in southern England:

The main stay of the laborer's stomach is fine, white wheaten bread, of the best possible quality, such as it would be a luxury to get any where else in the world, and such as many a New England farmer never tasted, and, even if his wife were able to make it, would think an extravagance to be ordinarily upon his table.46

Admittedly, white wheat bread likely was the only luxury Hodge and his family in the south of England enjoyed. Despite this particular boon, a lack of meat still characterized the southern English agricultural laborer's diet, although not the northerner's. All in all, the slaves' "standard rations" arguably, minus the problems of eating crude corn bread and the risk of pellagra without further supplements, likely surpassed in overall satisfaction what the majority of the free agricultural laborers of England depended on because meat (and milk) fell out of their diet as enclosure advanced, making it difficult or impossible for them to keep their own cows or pigs (see pp. 40-41 below), and they often did not consume enough even of starches (potatoes and bread) in hard times.

The Superior Conditions of the Northern English Farmworkers

The northern English agricultural laborer clearly enjoyed superior conditions to his southern brother (or sister) during the general period of industrialization. Joseph Arch recalled why the union failed in organizing the northern farmworkers:

We could not do much in the north; about Newcastle and those northern districts the men were much better paid, and they said, 'The Union is a good thing, but we are well off and can get along without it.' The Union was strongest, and kept so, in the Midland, Eastern, and Western counties.

In northern England near Scotland, in Northumberland and Durham, the 1867-68 Commissioners found the wages were high and that the labor market favored the laborers. The institution of service still persisted in northern Northumberland in the mid to late 1860s. They were often paid in kind and received fifteen to eighteen shillings a week. Day laborers--those not under a contract for their service--received two and a half to three shillings a day. Since the laborers' cottages were dispersed, they avoided the pitfalls of the gang system since they lived on or near their employer's premises, thus eliminating long walks to work. Wages were high enough so their children rarely went to work before age fourteen except during summers, when eleven-twelve year olds took to the fields during agriculture's seasonal peak in labor requirements. In southern Northumberland, none under ten worked. Higher wages allowed northern laborers' children to receive more education than their southern counterparts, where the much smaller margin above subsistence correspondingly increased the need for them to earn their keep as soon as possible. As another sign of the North's tight labor market, routinely single women living in their parents' home often were in farm service--"bound" in "bondage"--and did all types of heavy farm work.47 Excepting perhaps for housing (see p. 69), this area's agricultural workers were about as well-off as non-skilled manual laborers then could expect.

Away from these areas near Scotland, wages gradually decline until the Lincoln\Leicester area is reached, where a rather abrupt transition to southern English conditions occurs. Lincoln and Nottingham had wages of fifteen to seventeen shillings a week, but Leicester just eleven. Their diets reflected these wage differences, since in Lincoln laborers' families had meat two or three times a day, while in Leicester only the father had it, and then just once a day. Similarly, for Oxfordshire and nearby, Somerville described many laborers as "always under-fed, even if always employed." By contrast, Yorkshire's higher wages of fourteen shillings per week encouraged parents to keep their children in school longer. There farm service still remained, with foremen receiving thirty pounds a year and board, a wagoner, sixteen to twenty pounds, and plowboys, ten to fourteen. Tom Mullins of Stafford remembered at age seventeen (c. 1880) he earned sixteen pounds per year and his keep. In Stafford, where during his life he moved from the southern to the northern part. (Incidently, Caird's wage line falls at this county's southern border). Oatmeal, frequently turned into thin sour cakes shaped like disks, along with dairy products, formed the mainstay of the diet before c. 1890. "Though wages were low people managed on them and also saved a bit. Ten shillings went a lot further then than now. Bread was 3d. the quartern loaf, milk 3d. a quart, tobacco 3d. an ounce . . . beer was 2d., the best was 3d." Since service persisted in his area, an annual hiring fair took place about October tenth each year. "But I never need to hire myself out, as I always had more jobs offered than I could undertake. Pity I couldn't have spread myself a bit!"48 As these descriptions illustrate, the diet of the farm laborers north of Caird's line was quite good, showing unquestionably that they were better off on average than most slaves in the United States even before considering any quality of life factors.49

Meat as a Luxury For Many Farmworkers

Unlike most slaves, the meat English farm laborers ate often came from what animals they personally owned and slaughtered themselves, assuming they were not sold to meet rent, clothing, or other expenses. In Wiltshire, near Cranbourne, Somerville found "all of them [the laborers] kept a pig or two; but they had to sell them to pay their rents." A Sussex farmer/relieving officer told Parliamentary Commissioners that "every labourer at that time [pre-1794] had a pig." Farmworkers in that area then got pork from feeding their own animal, not directly from the farmers they worked for. Showing a serious decline in living standards had set in, Somerville found in 1840s Dorset that often laborers were not allowed to keep a pig: "The dictum of the father of Sir John Tyrrell, in Essex, is understood and acted on in Dorset--'No labourer can be honest and feed a pig!'" Betraying a materialistic bent, Cobbett summarized well how important owning pigs was to the laborers: "The working people [near Worcester] all seem to have good large gardens, and pigs in their styes; and this last, say the feelosofers what they will about her 'antallectal enjoyments,' is the only security for happiness in a labourer's family." Of course, as part of their duties for their masters, slaves raised pigs and other animals for slaughter. But they did not own them personally, except where their masters and mistresses allowed them to, such as the task-system-dominated area of lowland Georgia and South Carolina. In England, butcher's meat (i.e., the meat of animals killed and already cut up for the buyer) was regarded as a luxury. Consequently, classes above the laborers were its main consumers.50 Jefferies heaped scorn on maidservants, born of fathers still at the plow, who when at "home ha[d] been glad of bread and bacon," but after having worked for wealthy tenant farmers, "now cannot possibly survive without hot butcher's meat every day, and game and fish in their seasons."51 The meat laborers ate was often what they had raised themselves, whether it was on the commons before enclosure, on allotments, or in their own gardens. Depending on the commercial market for meat was not a way to economize. Scarce until after around 1830, allotments helped laborers raise their own pigs (when so allowed). Indeed, in some areas with allotments many or most did keep pigs, in part because these produced some of the needed manure to keep their (say) fourth or half acre fertile.52 But as the enclosure movement gained strength after 1760, stripping farmworkers of grazing land, they largely lost their ability to raise their own animals until allotments slowly, partially, and haphazardly restored this ability after c. 1830.

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