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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

See You at the Auction

The Lowest Bidder Takes All

Auctioning the Poor: (P. Frenzeny/Interim Archives/Getty Images)
Auctioning the Poor: (P. Frenzeny/Interim Archives/Getty Images)

The similarities in 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 that. 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 town took care of the poor. The town cared for the poor by bringing them into their farms and having them perform labor to earn their keep. Sometimes, the farmers received a small stipend for keeping a pauper.

It was also common for paupers to be auctioned off. 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. This bidder agreed to provide room and board for the lowest price. The auction’s winner was contracted to use the pauper as free labor, in turn, for housing, food, and health care. An auction might include an entire family, 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, a custom in this country that dates back to the first settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century. This system seemed to work for a time, and the farm structure began to undergo change. The burden of the poor, also called paupers, began to shift from the town to the county.

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 the institution, a board determined the class of the individual. Sometimes entire families went before the board and, depending on the circumstances, were usually separated.

The applicants met with medical examiners to decide whether they were able-bodied, weak, or feeble. Generally, children and the vulnerable, elderly, or sickly 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; some were more lenient than others. A lenient guardian might allow a pauper to keep his tools or personal possessions, while a stricter guardian may decide that the family goods be distributed to the county. A guardian may determine that a pauper keeps his tools in the event that he may someday be able to work independently and obtain prosperous employment. Usually, the paupers were stripped of their personal belongings and were left with no resources.

Evidently, the paupers were imprisoned at this time in our tumultuous history. They were referred to as inmates, disinfected, had their clothes taken away, and were required to wear 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 reminded me of the seventeenth century when women charged with adultery were forced to wear the letter, "A" branding them immoral.

One difference between the poor house and prison was that paupers could check themselves out, but it was not easy and happened infrequently. Life on the poor farm was restrictive and often punitive. The paupers were punished for being poor, the elders for aging, and the sick for failing. Where did we go from there? Where do we go from here?

There is much more to the story.

In the meantime, pause and reflect on the circumstances of those in our community who might need the bare essentials. Sometimes, people are ashamed to bring awareness to their needs. We have been programmed not to ask when we need help. Since this programming is still in play, please be aware of those who may require assistance and rise up to meet them.


Jan 28, 2023

Interesting history!

Jan 28, 2023
Replying to

It has been an ongoing journey of intrigue and learning. Thanks. Mj

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