Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Domestic Servants in Philadelphia, 1800

No one in the 17th or 18th century came freely to the American colonies with the ambition to be a domestic servant or a farm hand. But as these immigrants prospered they wanted others to do this type of work for them. Almost from the beginning ships bringing Africans (to be slaves for life) and European indentured servants (to be slaves for a term of years) arrived to fill the colonists' needs.

Few during this period gave much thought to the morality of the practice. After all, their standard for right and wrong, the Bible, accepted slavery. Slaves and indentured servants were soon found throughout the colonies. An indication of their ubiquity: in 1691 the Rev. Samuel Parris's slave Tituba was among the first accused of witchcraft in Salem Village, Massachusetts.

In the 1760's three-quarters of all domestic servants in Philadelphia were slaves, the rest indentured servants with a sprinkling of free whites. Michael Gratz, Rebecca's father, had slaves as domestics and a slave chef running his kitchen in the 1770's, and her grandfather, Joseph Simon of Lancaster, PA, owned several slaves as well. But things were already changing as the Quakers waged their campaign (begun in the 1760's) against slavery. In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law gradually abolishing it in the state.

"Slaves for a time" were still legal and by 1800 most domestics in Philadelphia were redemptioners, immigrants who were sold into servitude on their arrival to pay for their passage. "Redemptioner" is a reference to a loophole which could save them from this fate: if someone came forward to pay the passage, the new arrival could go free. Since only a few would have a relative or friend waiting for them, most became servants, usually for a term of four years.

Redemptioners were very much aware that domestic work in the United States was equated with slavery/indentured servitude. Morceau de St. Mery, a French colonial emigrant, who lived in Philadelphia in the 1790's, reported on their desire to get away from this type of work when their term was up: "Even though one of them may have long been a servant, all the other servants in the same house urge her to leave so that she won't be considered an indenture."

The redemptioners provided a relatively small pool of potential servants, all of whom would leave at the end of their term. Free African-Americans, cut off from all but the most menial jobs, were more likely to stay. Free whites were real short-termers, looking to get out as soon as possible, and free women of either race frequently left to get married.

For Miriam Gratz, Rebecca's mother, this meant teaching and reteaching -- and since the family adhered to traditional Jewish dietary laws, an enormous amount of time must have been spent in introducing non-Jewish servants to the procedures they must follow. Given the scarcity of servants suitable for a wealthy household and the time expended on them, it is no wonder that she -- and non-Jewish matrons as well -- made do with relatively few domestics. In an early letter Rebecca sends her regards to "Nellie, Nancy and Peter," the household servants. The three must have had their hands full, caring for a large establishment and the ten Gratz family members who were living at home in 1800.

There is very little in the Gratz correspondence about these servants. While Peter was a redemptioner, the two references to "Nancy" nearly ten years apart suggest that if this was the same person she was almost certainly an African-American for whom a position in a wealthy household was the best employment a woman of her race could expect. About "Nellie" we know nothing. Later servants, with one exception -- a long-term employee, barely get a mention.

Despite the small number of servants who worked for the Gratz family, and then for Rebecca, over the years, from time to time problems arose, and they will be the focus of posts A Pregnant Servant and An Insolent Servant.

(The number of slave domestics in Philadelphia is from David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Information about Michael Gratz's slaves is from The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson, by Edwin Wolf 2nd and Maxwell Whiteman. Joseph Simon information is from David A. Brener's The Jews of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Moreau de St. Mery's American Journey includes his observations about indentured servants. Rebecca's letter is undated but internal evidence suggests it is from 1799. It is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Powered by WebRing.