This article is entitled “Farm Households and Wage Labor in the Northeastern Maritimes in the 19th Century” written by Rusty Bitterman. Elementary, this article focuses on wage labor amongst farm households especially in the Maritimes in early 19th century.
Primarily, resource-based economies were prevalent in the maritime and they included agricultural and non-agricultural practices. There was plenty of land and therefore any person would access the land and make a living out of it. “With a wife and axe, an industrious man might carve out a handsome competence and become truly rich and independent” (Bitterman, 1993, p. 14). However, apart from farm household labors, people got involved in waged labor.
Bittterman points out that the main reason why people got involved in waged labor was to institute and maintain their own farms. Farming requires resources to run it. For instance, for a farmer to start farming, he or she requires farm inputs and seeds on top of labor to get the farming underway. This need to have money to support such events explains why many farmers assumed two roles; that is, being casual laborers or wage earners and at the same time being farmers tilling their own lands. The article points out that, the fact that most of the people around the maritime had two jobs, class distinction between wage earners and farmers was outstandingly missing. Consequently, there was no clear-cut class identity in those times and neither could the prevailing environment allow establishment of the same.
The ideal of an independent farmer was to cultivate his or her land, raise families, and be independent. Independence, wealth accumulation and raising families was the dream of every farmer in the maritime. Bitterman (1993) says one would become “…truly rich and independent” (p. 14). However, despite the desire to become independent, these farmers had to become wage earners; a move that seemed to take away their most craved independence.
So, how did wage labor fit into the lives of families striving to attain this ideal in the Maritimes? In this article, Rusty Bitterman gives a valid explanation of why farmers engaged in wage labor and how this fitted in their lives to attain the ideal farmer status in the maritime. During this period of early 19th century, most farmers were illiterate and amateurs in any profession. Therefore, to become independent and rich, these people had to work as wage earners to partly support their farming practices and supplement their earnings from the poorly cultivated lands. The fact that these farmers were not skilled in any filed implies that even the farming they did they did it poorly and consequently the production was low. On the other hand, in the wage labor, unskilled labor dominated the arena implying that production was poor hence poor payment. Due to lack of education, there were no set employment rules that would counter check any form of exploitation.
Therefore, these conditions starting with poor farming practices which, resulting into poor yields and faced with the need of every farmer to be independent and rich, forced the farmers to take up non-farming activities to earn some income that would maintain their farms and provide for their families as aforementioned. This phenomenon explains how wage labor fitted into the lives of farmers and their families and still maintained their ideal status in the maritime. However, the writer was not convinced by the author’s argument.
There are some critical concerns that the writer raises in this case. For instance, the claim that farmers were independent during that time is not substantial. The article stresses the fact that there was massive paternalism between employees who partly happened to be farmers and employers who were merchants and land rulers. With this regard, independence of the farmers remains in question because their wage earning part of livelihood lay in the hands of these prominent and rich coteries of the society. To say that the farmers were independent because they cultivated their farms is null. It is clear that the farmers were not producing enough farm products to sustain them and their families giving them the independence and wealth that they craved.
Actually, the article points out clearly that the reason why many farmers engaged in wage labors was to supplement their poor incomes from farming. This implies that these same farmers had to go looking for wage labors from the same individuals who were out to exploit them. This implies that independence and richness was not anywhere close to these farmers as claimed in the article. The article to some extent insinuates that the only people who did not have independence were the working class. This holds some truth. However, the farmers were part of the working class because they got involved in waged labor at some point.
Towards the end of the article Bitterman points out that, more farmers engaged in wage labor as time went on. According to Bitterman, there were two classes of people; wage laborers and farmers. However, a new class of wage earners cum farmers emerged and this is where independence of farmers got lost.
As long as they worked as wage earners, they remained under the mercies of merchants and rich landowners and were subject to exploitation.
Bitterman, R. (1993). Farm Households and Wage Labor in the Northeastern Maritimes In the 19th Century. Retrieved 2 Feb.