01 / 05
Grim Old Days: Louis B. Wright’s Everyday Life in Colonial America

Blog Post | Labor & Employment

Grim Old Days: Louis B. Wright’s Everyday Life in Colonial America

In Colonial Times, the American Dream Was a Living Nightmare.

Trying to imagine life in the colonies that became the United States might conjure an image of colonists cheerfully dancing to fife music, reveling in the land of peace and plenty where they have recently settled.

If only one could return to the good old days!

Except that such rose-colored views of the past bear no resemblance to reality. The world our ancestors faced was in fact more gruesome than modern minds can fathom. Let’s deromanticize the past.

Everyday Life in Colonial America, by the late scholar and defender of private philanthropy Louis Booker Wright, presents detailed examples of just how difficult everyday life in the past really was. First published in 1965, this book offers a glimpse into a world where there was “no leisure time as we know it, no labor-saving devices, no radio, no means for rapid transportation or communication.” Wright’s portrait of the colonists’ day-to-day struggles reveals dire poverty, shocking violence, and unending work. Here are some of the grisly highlights.

Colonial medicine was sometimes actively harmful, for example advising consumption of toxic plants. A Spanish physician named Nicolás Monardes (1493–1588) wrote a book that remained popular in its English translation for centuries. Joyful News Out of the New World (1577) described, among other things, supposedly wondrous medicines growing from the earth throughout America.

Of all the medicinal herbs that Monardes described, tobacco treated the widest range of ailments. He reported that it was good for headache, toothache, rheumatism, pains in the joints, stomachaches of every kind, chilblains, swellings of all kinds, wounds of every description, snake bite, and even bad breath. Tobacco could be smoked, chewed, made into poultices, powdered and rubbed into wounds, steeped as a tea, and rolled into pills. For nearly two centuries after the publication of this book, many people believed tobacco was a remedy for various ailments … [And] most writers praised tobacco’s curative powers.

Among other products that Monardes recommended was sassafras, which, he declared, would cure even more diseases than tobacco … In Europe the demand for sassafras was for a time insatiable, as everyone turned to sassafras tea as a panacea for ache and pain.

“Tobacco and sassafras, the first universal wonder drugs,” were both, in fact, highly damaging to the human body.

When the colonists weren’t poisoning themselves with quack remedies, they were working. Work was endless.

The amount of human toil required to establish themselves is hard for us even to imagine today.

To find enough cleared land for crops was one of the colonists’ most difficult problems. The labor of cutting down and removing trees in a heavily forested area is enormous, even with power tools, and the colonists in the early years did not have even a horse or an ox to drag the trees away.

The only power other than that of human brawn was supplied by a horse, mule, or ox. The first plows in America showed little improvement over those used in the Middle Ages.

Nobody in the colonial period ever heard of an eight hour day. The workday on the farm was from sun to sun, sunup until sundown. Indeed, it was often longer than this, for livestock had to be fed and cows milked by lantern light in winter; even in the summer the farmer and his family were usually up and about their work long before sunrise.

Almost every farmer’s wife had a spinning wheel and many a farmer worked at a loom during the winter when little work could be done outdoors.

[E]verybody was so busy with the struggle for the raw essentials of life that there was no time for formal entertainment. … They had enough to do to stay alive.

Women least of all knew the luxury of leisure. A common proverb ran, “Man works from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” That was literally true. … [S]he had to cook and wash for the whole family without benefit of any labor-saving device; she not only had to make garments for all the family, including the menfolk, but she had to spin the thread and weave the yarn into the cloth for these garments. Her hands could never be idle … She did not have time to worry about amusements, though she did manage at times to find pleasure in such communal activities as quilting parties. Pleasure in the colonial period, both for women and men, frequently had to be found in some essential activity.

One such essential activity was slaughtering animals, such as pests and farm animals. The colonists were bored out of their minds and sometimes made a game of killing the animals, finding pleasure in lethally clubbing rats and torturing and decapitating geese with their bare hands.

A part of the talk about the fireside in the evening would be about how Old Brindle or some other animal had behaved that day. Since the weather, even in summer, was not invariably fair, there were days when it was too wet and rainy for much work out of doors. Such days were times for relaxation and fun … Sports on rainy days were simple and sometimes crude. Boys frequently organized rat killings, which provided a certain amount of excitement. A group armed with clubs gathered around a pile of corn in the corncrib and slowly pitched the ears into a new pile. As the old pile dwindled, the rats harboring there ran out, to be clubbed to death on the crib floor. The boy with the largest number of rats to his credit was proclaimed champion rat killer. Sometimes wrestling matches would take place in the barns or corn cribs.

[Popular pastimes included] running after a greased pig or “gander pulling,” in which men rode by and tried to pull off the well-greased head of a goose suspended from a bar. When a rider lost his balance and tumbled to the ground, the crowd held their sides with laughter. Our ancestors were not overly refined and they did not worry about such things as pain to the goose or danger to the rider.

Painting titled “A Gander Pull,” Frederic Remington, 1894, West Virginia.

Gander pulling was most popular in the southern colonies. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, Puritans banned even innocent pastimes. There, “the General Court forbade both shuffleboard and bowling.” “Some towns made the sale of playing cards illegal.” Playing cards were called “the devil’s picture books.”

They also disapproved of the celebration of Christmas as “a wicked waste of time” and a sign of “popish superstition,” and Judge Samuel Sewall of Boston ordered shopkeepers to keep their stores open on the day. (The Puritan colonists did not tolerate different religions or creeds, particularly Catholicism). The Reverend John Cotton of Boston decreed that a girl should not draw a boy’s name out of a hat and write his name on a valentine card for Valentine’s Day.

Massachusetts also attempted to suppress so-called “lascivious dancing to wanton ditties” and any “mixed dancing” involving both male and female dancers. In the more liberal South, dancing was popular, although religious toleration was no better—one popular game at social gatherings was called “Break the Pope’s Neck.” Cockfighting was also extraordinarily popular: “cockfighting took place on all levels of society.” And while today wolves are the target of conservation efforts, the colonists enjoyed wolf-hunting:

In seventeenth-century New England wolves were a menace and a bounty was offered for wolf heads. Men and boys in the time that they could spare from routine tasks hunted wolves and brought in their heads to the magistrates of townships. It was the custom in many districts to hang wolf heads against the outside walls of the meetinghouse.

“Muster Day” drills also became a source of entertainment. Most colonial towns maintained a militia, as relations with indigenous tribes were poor and sporadic wars broke out. (King Philip’s War, for example, which took place from 1675 to 1678, killed “one [colonial] man in sixteen throughout New England.” After the war, Massachusetts “made death the penalty for evading military service.”) “At intervals, the militia, composed of all [male] able-bodied citizens of a certain age, had to be called together for drills.” Those occasions were called Muster Days. “Contests of marksmanship were usual … The targets might be live turkeys or ducks, for our ancestors were not squeamish.” It was common for an “impromptu wrestling match and fist fight” to break out:

If some of the crowd reeled home with broken heads and black eyes, that did not decrease the pleasure of others. Muster Day was an occasion no boy wanted to miss.

Perhaps the most violent pastime of all was their version of football:

Football was a rough-and-tumble scrimmage without the elaborate rules that we know today. One side, with any number of players, lined up against another and tried to push a ball through to the opposite side. Heads were bashed and noses bloodied and the game sometimes degenerated into a free-for-all fight. This type of football had been plated in England for generations and is  supposed to have originated in primitive times, when opposing sides would fight for the head of a victim of a human sacrifice. At any rate, English writers of books of conduct, as well as New England preachers, condemned football as dangerous and liable to break the limbs and necks of the players.

As for tamer pastimes, many people enjoyed reading then just as today. But their libraries often consisted of “only a handful of books,” reread over and over.

Most know that many colonists enslaved people and treated those individuals as less than human, but the colonists even beat and tortured their non-enslaved servants, whose humanity they ostensibly recognized:

The authorities intervened only in cases of unusual severity, for beatings were considered normal. In 1666, Nicholas and Judith Weekes of Kittery, in what is now Maine, went too far, and caused the death of a servant. The wife confessed that she had cut off his toes. Occasionally the court intervened in the case of an unruly apprentice or servant. A Virginia jury in 1663, after considering a case of incorrigible impudence from a woman servant indentured to a master who could not control his household, ordered both servant and master to be ducked: she for impudence, he because he had “degenerated so much from a man as neither to bear rule over his woman servant or govern his house.”

“Punishment by the Ducking Stool in Colonial America Inflicted on a Woman Guilty of Offense with the Tongue,” engraving, 19th century.

Child labor was common. Like adults, children worked from sunup until sundown:

Children were bound out as apprentices when they were very young. Normally, boys served a master until they were twenty-one; girls served until they were from sixteen to eighteen, or until they married. It had not yet occurred to anyone that child labor was evil, and children were expected to work as early as they could manipulate the implements of labor. … Children as young as the six-year-old Isaiah Thomas were apprenticed by their parents, who signed the indentures.

In the case of orphans, town or county authorities had the right to bind them out at any age to masters who would look after them and bring them up in some trade or occupation.

Compared with modern concepts of working hours, leisure, holidays, and paid vacations, the life of a colonial apprentice was hard, monotonous, and dreary. He was expected to work from dawn to dusk and to keep busy in the evenings if duties in the household required it. He could not restrict his labor to any set number of hours per week, and if he had a respite on Saturday or a half day some other time he was more fortunate than most.

Children often received a rudimentary education. But school was far away, cold, and the teachers were violent.

Many a colonial child thought nothing of walking three or four miles to get to a village schoolhouse.

[T]eachers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries generally believed in exercising firm discipline enforced by a birch rod or a hickory switch kept in plain view to warn any would-be misbehaver of punishment in store. Not only were pupils soundly thrashed for disorderly behavior, but some teachers believed in ‘beating learning into them’ when they seemed negligent of their lessons.

Punishments were sometimes severe, and many a youngster went home with the marks of the switch upon his legs. Parents for the most part approved of this discipline and it was the rule in some households that a child received another beating for good measure when he got home to signify the parents’ approval of the punishment meted out at school. Beating was not the only punishment. In some New England schools parents were expected to help pay for the child’s education by supplying firewood; when parents failed to supply wood, their children were placed farthest from the fire in the coldest part of the room. A shivering child would be certain to carry the word home that wood was needed.

But at least the people of the colonial era enjoyed their pristine surroundings, those beautiful untouched forests, right? Think again.

No seventeenth-century settler ever wrote a poem on the beauty of the forests primeval.

Forests, which in many parts of the Atlantic seaboard extended almost to the edge of the sea, seemed not only mysterious and ominous to the first settlers but also hindered travel … Briers caught on a traveler’s clothes and tore his garments to shreds.

Great Britain had been improvident in the use of her own forests and lacked sufficient oaks to provide ship timbers and other lumber. So barren was Scotland of woods in the seventeenth century that someone remarked that Judas could have found salvation sooner than a tree on which to hang himself. The manufacture of iron and steel required charcoal, obtained from the burning of timber in kilns, and England needed charcoal. The mother country turned to the forests of America for all of these products.

So much for environmental stewardship in the old days. Today, in contrast, the U.K. has regained forest levels registered in the Domesday Book about a thousand years ago.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 49

Jay Richards: Human Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Jay Richards, a senior research fellow and center director at The Heritage foundation, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss why robots and artificial intelligence won't lead to widespread unemployment.

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Human Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews Jay Richards about why robots and artificial intelligence won't lead to widespread unemployment.

Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript here.

Your book, The Human Advantage, is a couple of years old now, but it feels more relevant than ever with ChatGPT, DALL-E 2, and all of these new technologies. People are more afraid than ever of the threat of technological unemployment.

There’s something that economists call the lump of labor fallacy. It’s this idea that there’s a fixed amount of work that needs to be done, and if some new technology makes a third of the population’s work obsolete, then those people won’t have anything to do. Of course, if that were a good argument, it would have been a good argument at the time of the American founding, when almost everyone was living and working on farms. You move forward to, say, 1900, and maybe half the population was still on farms. Well, here we are in 2022, and less than 2 percent of us work on farms. If the lump of labor fallacy were true, we’d almost all be unemployed.

In reality, there’s no fixed amount of work to be done. There are people providing goods and services. More efficient work makes stuff less expensive, giving people more income to spend on more things, creating more work. But a lot of smart people think that advancements in high technology, especially in robotics and artificial intelligence, make our present situation different.

Is this time different?

I don’t think so.

Ultimately, the claim that machines will replace us relies on the assumption that machines and humans are relevantly alike. I do not buy that premise. These machines replace ways in which we do things, but there is no reason to think that they’re literally going to replace us.

A lot of us hear the term artificial intelligence and imagine what we’ve seen in science fiction. But that term is almost all marketing hype. These are sorting algorithms that run statistics. They aren’t intelligent in the sense that we are not dealing with agents with wills or self-consciousness or first-person perspective or anything like that. And there’s no reason beyond a metaphysical temptation to think that these are going to be agents. If I make a good enough tractor, it won’t become an ox. And just because I developed a computer that can run statistical algorithms well doesn’t mean it will wake up and be my girlfriend.

The economy is about buying and selling real goods and services, but it’s also about creating value. Valuable information is not just meaningless bits, it has to be meaningful. Where does meaningful information come from? Well, it comes from agents. It comes from people acting with a purpose, trying to meet their needs and the needs of others. In that way, the information economy, rather than alienating us and replacing us, is actually the economy that is most suited to our properties as human beings.

You’ve said that the real challenge of the information economy is not that workers will be replaced but that the pace of change and disruption could speed up. Could you elaborate on that? 

This is a manifestation of the so-called Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is based on the observation that engineers could roughly double the number of transistors they put on an integrated circuit every two years. Thanks to this rapid suffusion of computational power, the economy is changing much faster than in earlier periods.

Take the transition from the agrarian to the industrial economy. In 1750, or around the time of the American founding, 90 percent of the population lived and worked on farms. In 1900, it was about half that. By 1950, it halved again. Today, it’s a very small percentage of the population. That’s amazingly fast in the whole sweep of history, but it took a few hundred years, a few generations.

Well, in my lifetime alone, I listened to vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, CDs, and then MP3 files that you had to download. Nobody even does that today. We stream them. We moved from the world of molecules to the world of bits, from matter to information.

There were whole industries built around the 8-track tape industry, making the tapes, making the machines, and repairing them. That has completely disappeared. We don’t sit around saying, “Too bad we didn’t have a government subsidy for those 8-track tape factories,” but this is an illustration of how quickly things can change.

That’s where we need to focus our attention. There can be massive disruptions that happen quickly, where you have whole industries that employ hundreds of thousands of people disappear. You can say, “I know you just lost your job and don’t know how to pay your mortgage, but two years from now, there will be more jobs.” That could be true. It still doesn’t solve the problem. If we’re panicking about Skynet and the robots waking up, we’re not focusing on the right thing, and we’re likely to implement policies that will make things worse rather than better.

Could you talk a bit about the idea of a government provided universal basic income and how that relates to this vision of mass unemployment? 

I have a whole chunk of a chapter at the end of the book critiquing this idea of universal basic income. The argument is that if technology is going to replace what everyone is doing, one, they’re not going to have a source of income, and that’s a problem. People, in general, need to work in the sense that we need to be doing something useful to be happy.

I think there are two problems with that argument. One is that it’s based on this false assumption of permanent technological unemployment that is not new. In the book, I quote a letter from a group of scientists writing to the president of the United States warning about what they call a “cybernetic revolution” and saying that these machines are going to take all the jobs and we need a massive government program to pay for it. The letter is from the 1960s, and the recipient was Lyndon Baines Johnson. This is one of the justifications for his great society programs. Well, that was a long time ago. It’s exactly the same argument. It wasn’t true then. I don’t think it’s true now.

The second point is that just giving people cash payments misses the point entirely. First, it pays people to not work. Disruption is a social problem, but the last thing you want to do is to discourage people from finding new, innovative things to do.

Entrepreneurs find new things to do, new types of work. They put their wealth at risk, and they need people that are willing to work for them. And so you want to create the conditions where they can do that. You don’t want to incentivize people not to do that.

Let’s talk a bit about digitalization. How did rival and non-rival goods relate to this idea of digitalization? 

So, a banana is a rival good. If I eat a banana, you can’t have it. In fact, I can’t have it anymore. I’ve eaten it, and now it’s gone. Lots of digital goods aren’t like this at all. Think of that mp3 file. If I download a song for $1.29 on iTunes, I haven’t depleted the stock by one. The song is simply copied onto my computer. That’s how information, in general, is. If I teach you a skill, I haven’t lost the skill; it was non-rival. More and more of our economy is dealing in these non-rival spaces. It’s exciting because rather than dealing in a world of scarcity, we’re dealing in a world of abundance.

It also means that the person who gets their first can get fabulously wealthy because of network effects. For instance, it’s really hard to replicate Facebook because once you get a few billion people on a network, the fact that billions of people are on that network becomes the most relevant fact about it. There’s a winner-take-all element to it. But, in a sense, that’s fine. Facebook is not like the robber baron who takes all the shoreline property, leaving none for anyone else. It’s not like that in the digital world. There are always going to be opportunities for other people to produce new things that were not there before.

And then there’s hyper-connectivity. You’ve said that this is something you don’t think gets enough attention; for the first time, a growing share—soon all of humanity probably—will be connected at roughly the speed of light to the internet. Can you elaborate on that? 

Yeah, this is absolutely amazing.

Half of Adam Smith’s argument was about the division of labor and comparative advantage. When people specialize, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In the global market, we can produce everything from a pencil to an iPhone, even though no one person or even one hundred people in the network knows how. Together, following price signals, we can produce things that none of us could do on our own. Now, imagine that everyone is able to connect more or less in real time. There will be lots of cooperative things that we can do together, of course, that we could not do otherwise. 

A lot of people imagine that everybody’s going to have to be a computer engineer or a coder or something like that, but in a hyper-connected world, interpersonal skills are going to end up fetching a higher premium. In fact, I think some of the work that coders are doing is more likely to be replaced.

Do you worry about creative work, like writing, being taken over by AI? 

Algorithms can already produce, say, stock market news. But the reality is that stock market news is easily systematized and submitted to algorithms. That kind of low-level writing is going to be replaced just as certain kinds of low-level, repetitive labor were replaced. On the other hand, highly complex labor, such as artisanal craft work, is not only going to be hard to automate, but it’s also something we don’t necessarily want to automate. I might value having hand-made shoes, even if I could get cheaper machine-made shoes.

To sum up, how do you think people can best react to mass automation and advances in AI? 

I think the best way to adapt to this is to develop broad human skills, so a genuine liberal arts education is still a really good thing. Become literate, numerate, and logical, and then develop technical skills on the side, such as social media management or coding. The reality is that, unlike their parents and grandparents, who may have just done one or two jobs, young people today are likely to do five or six different things in their adult careers. They need to develop skills that allow them to adapt quickly. Sure, pick one or two specialized skills as a side gig, but don’t assume that that’s what you’re going to do forever. But if you know how to read, if you know how to write, if you are numerate and punctual, you’re still going to be really competitive in the 21st century economy.

Get Jay Richards’s book, The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines, here.

BBC | Labor Productivity

How Robots Are Taking over Warehouse Work

“In its warehouses, Asda uses a system from Swiss automation firm Swisslog and Norway’s AutoStore. In the US, Walmart has been automating parts of its supply chain using robotics from an American company called Symbotic.

Back in Luton, Ocado has taken its automation process to a higher level.

The robots which zoom around the grid, now bring items to robotic arms, which reach out and grab what they need for the customer’s shop.

Bags of rice, boxes of tea, packets of crumpets are all grabbed by the arms using a suction cup on the end.”

From BBC.

Axios | Labor & Employment

Average Worker Now Logs off at 4 p.m. On Fridays

“Quitting time has been shifting earlier throughout the week, and it’s especially early on Friday, according to an analysis of sign-off times from some 75,000 workers at 816 companies by the workplace analytics firm ActivTrak.

Friday sign-off times have moved up from around 5 p.m. at the start of 2021 to around 4 p.m. now. Monday-Thursday sign-offs have also shifted earlier, to around 5 p.m. on average.”

From Axios.