Lately I have been wrestling with a question. Was literacy a valuable commodity in early Baltimore’s labor market? Basically was it economically worthwhile for a poor or working class individual to learn to read?
Hilary Moss in her book Schooling citizensmakes the point that newspaper advertisements seeking ‘colored’ boys who could read and write for unskilled jobs is evidence that employers in early nineteenth century Baltimore valued literacy even for positions that did not require it. She argues that white employers were trying to reap the rewards of black literacy. And presumably if they were willing to exploit black worker’s literacy they would be even more eager to exploit that of white laborers?
In trying to verify Moss’ argument I went looking for some of these advertisements, but was only able to find one for the period before 1825. This was in the Baltimore Patriot on 11 December 1820. While this certainly proves that one person wanted to hire a literate black boy, the advertisement is not necessarily for an unskilled position, since ‘errands and light services’ could mean a range of activities.
There was certainly a lot of rhetoric floating around at the time which linked education and literacy to moral improvement and social respectability. Education has always been linked to the American ideal of social mobility. Certainly religious groups felt that working class individuals could be improved through Biblical reading.
However this doesn’t actually prove that an education was economically beneficial to poor and working class men and women. In fact, an old study by Michael Sanderson on nineteenth century Lancaster in England could not find any correlation between literacy and increased pay among industrial textile workers. His study did show that literacy increased social mobility for those lucky enough to obtain it during childhood, but for workers performing various types of manual labor, even highly skilled, literacy was of secondary importance.
Work by Peter Watkinson on apprentices in Petersburg, Virginia shows that even though education was supposed to be a mandatory part of their apprenticeships, many were very indifferent about attending school. He suggests that older examples of non-literate individuals who had found success in life, served to down-play the importance young apprentices placed on literacy within their own economic futures.
Ultimately I don’t have enough information to answer my own question. Some hard statistical data from the 1840 census, which includes basic information on occupation and literacy, would go some way towards providing an answer. However, the point is still worth considering. Would you as an employer care if your gardener could read? Would you use literacy to differentiate between candidates despite the fact that it had no bearing on their ability to perform the job in question? As a poor worker in urban Baltimore struggling to survive, would you see an education as an economic asset or a waste of valuable time when you could be earning a wage?