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  • Mj Pettengill

Going Once! Going Twice! Auctioning the Poor


Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

The similarities of how society takes care of the poor now compared to the nineteenth century are astounding. The poor are a burden on society; there is no question about it. However, the question is, how do we resolve the issues surrounding poverty? Do we throw pennies at them and hope that they go away? It doesn’t work.

In the early nineteenth century, the poor were the responsibility of the town. The townspeople provided relief by taking the poor into their homes and farms, where they performed labor to earn their keep. In most instances, the farmers received a small stipend from the town for keeping a pauper.

This process, a form of slavery, was carried out by way of auctions. Paupers included individuals of all ages and gender—orphans, the mentally disabled, unwed mothers, and even the elderly fell under the term “pauper.”

Unlike the traditional auction, the pauper was sold to the lowest bidder. The lucky winner agreed to provide room and board and was contracted to use the pauper as free labor in turn for housing, food, and health care. An auction might include an entire family who was sometimes auctioned together as a unit. The contract generally lasted for up to two years.

The practice of auctioning the poor was a form of indentured servitude. This custom dates back to the first settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century. This system seemed to work for a time, and then along with socio-economic dynamics, the farm structure began to undergo severe changes. The burden of the poor—referred to as paupers— shifted from the town to the county. There are still many unanswered questions during this era that went up in flames in the countless records that burned in fires.

Poor farms, poorhouses, or almshouses had laws, rules and regulations that varied from state to state. Poor farms were tax-supported residential institutions. Upon deciding whether a pauper went to a private farm or institution, a board determined the class of the individual.


Sometimes entire families went before the board, and depending on the circumstances, were often separated. The applicants met with medical examiners to conclude whether they were able-bodied, weak, or feeble. Generally, children and the vulnerable, elderly, or ailing were institutionalized, which meant the poor farm and sometimes separated depending upon the current population of the poor farm.

The board members were referred to as guardians, and some were more lenient than others. A lenient guardian might allow a pauper to keep his tools or personal possessions. In contrast, a stricter guardian may decide that the family goods be distributed to the county. A guardian may decide that a pauper may keep his tools to work independently someday should he obtain prosperous employment. Usually, the paupers were stripped of their personal belongings and left with no resources.

To me, it appears as if the paupers were imprisoned. They were referred to as inmates, disinfected, had their clothes taken away, and often required a uniform. An elected town official served as the Overseer of the Poor, sometimes referred to as a Poor Master. Inmates bathed once a week, had their hair cut short, and the men were shaved weekly. It was customary for unwed mothers to wear a different colored gown, usually yellow. This reminds me of the seventeenth century when women charged with adultery were forced to wear the letter “A,” branding them immoral. If this is new information for you, please sit with it for a moment.

One difference between the poor house and prison was that paupers could check themselves out. Still, it was not an easy process and happened infrequently. On the other hand, those struggling to make it through a rough winter could check in on a temporary basis.


Please note that my work focuses on the 1870s through the 1890s when the county farms first emerged. I am aware that systematic changes occurred. I do not speak for this institution in the twentieth century. Life on the poor farm was restrictive and often punitive. The paupers were penalized for being poor, old, and disabled in any way. Many were sinners, transients, and vagrants. They were the root of ultimate shame that wove its way through future generations. Don’t be afraid to look. These people—buried anonymously and tragically, boldly forgotten—have been found. Acknowledgment brings freedom.

©Mj Pettengill Etched in Granite: Pauperism of the Nineteenth Century (Vermont College)