Were Children Paid for Working on Their Family Farms a Hundred Years Ago?

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Saturday, October 11, 1913: Received part of my pay today. It amounted to twelve dollars. I feel quite rich now. This surely ought to help me out in a pinch.

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Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma—

You’ve sure worked hard husking corn, and you deserve every penny you earned.  According to an online inflation calculator, $12 in 1913 would be worth about $285 now.

You are extremely fortunate to be paid for doing farm labor. Your parents must have been progressive thinking. Many young women working on their family farms probably received no compensation.

I’d like to thank Gallivanta for giving me the idea for this post. Let me share a story—

Gallivanta reads this blog and regularly makes comments. And, I’ve discovered her blog, Silkannthreads. She recently did a post on the lack of appreciation of the domestic work that women do, and on how women generally are not paid for this work (doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc.).

I made a comment on her post, and she responded:

. . . By the way, I have been thinking how great it is that Helena is being paid for her work during the corn harvest. She is not being treated as free family labour.

And, a light bulb went off in my head—

Wow, I’ve been feeling sorry for Grandma, when I should have recognized that she was incredibly fortunate to be paid.

Thank you, Gallivanta, for giving me valuable new insights.

You may also enjoy reading a previous post that I did on teaching farm kids the value of money.

45 Responses

  1. It could be that she was being paid since she was now considered an adult since she had finished school.

  2. I am delighted I helped with a light bulb moment, especially as it is really interesting to read how much Helena earned, and what that sum would be worth in today’s terms. Quite a good amount! I see that, in the earlier post you referenced, Helena thought she would put her money towards buying a watch. Did she ever buy that watch?

  3. Not specific to this post, but I do love the pictures of the landscape you post on your blog – the (Swedish-style) barns, beautiful houses, open space. I’ve never been to this part of the US but can see from your blog how lovely it is :-)

    • I’m glad you like the pictures. Central Pennsylvania is very pretty with is nice mixture of rolling hills, mountains, valleys, farmland, and forests.

  4. That is SO true. My mother was one of twelve children who grew up in a farming family. I daresay NONE of them were ever paid for work they did: they got food and a place to sleep!

    • Many was so tight for many farm families–so it probably was true that many farm children weren’t paid, but got food and a place to sleep.

  5. I think on a lot of farms, they were happy to able to feed and dress a whole family and that it was considered normal to help out in return. Grandma was indeed lucky to get paid (although well deserved as well ;0)) I love the picture of the farm in fall! Have a lovely weekend Sheryl.
    ps I so enjoy your blog!

  6. That was a tidy sum of money for her. My great grand mother kept a diary of her farm life in the late 1800s. I need to get that out and read it again.

    • Try reading it in small chunks. I find that I get much more out of my Grandmother’s diary when I only read the entries for a day or two at a time. If I sit down and read page after page, everything tends to become a blur.

  7. I always love your posts. Today I especially love the photo — feels so comfortable and homey.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked the picture. My picture-taking skills are somewhat limited–and it always seems a bit hit or miss to me whether a photo is going to turn out well or just so-so.

  8. Ha and it was only part of Helena’s pay – more is coming! I wonder what kind of things she wants to spend it on…she already has a camera…

  9. This was a lightbulb for me, in that it reminds me of a story I want to write of my first paid job on our family farm. Btw, I have t he first nickel my mothers brother earned on the farm, too, in 1912,

    • It’s awesome that you still have the first nickel your mother’s brother earned. I’m glad I gave you an idea of a story to write. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  10. Very interesting entry, both Helena’s and yours! I’m glad her work is being treated seriously. We weren’t paid for farm work but we also weren’t as old as Helena and I know we never worked as hard as she has been! And thanks for the new blog to follow!

    • It sort of seems like the work that Grandma did husking corn was considered more worthy of payment than the work she did completing her routine chores (milking cows, etc.)

  11. That was quite a nice pay! I agree with you that her parents must have been progressive thinkers. I wonder if she will tell in her later entries how she used the money…

  12. I never would have dreamed she would be paid! Was it because she an “adult”? Did she pay rent?

  13. Got goosebumps seeing the picture of the farm. Autumn is truly my favorite season.

  14. I hope she saves her money for something special :)

  15. My first pay (for a casual job) was $26 a week which translates (by the calculator you provided) to $150 so your Grandma was certainly well-paid :)
    (Or I was underpaid …..)

  16. The house in the photo is just beautiful with its white paint and red shutters. Is it the farmhouse where your grandmother grew up?

    I had not thought about family members being paid to work on a farm until I was visiting with my sister on Wednesday. We were discussing the fact that after my father’s father died (in 1933 when my dad was 21), my father’s step-mother (who had mistreated my father, by all objective accounts) expected him to stay on and work without pay. It’s interesting that this post tied in with that conversation and validates the idea that family members were paid for their work on farms. Thanks, Sheryl.

    • At the time she was born, I think that her family lived on another nearby farm. I’m not sure exactly when they moved to the farm in the picture.

      Whew, it sounds like your father had to deal with some difficult things as a young adult.

  17. Beautiful fall picture of the farm.

  18. I cannot even imagine how hard women had to work back then with manual labor of even doing the laundry. I am glad I am born at this time of history!

    • There was so much more manual labor back then. The way that laundry is done is one of the things that has changed the most between 1913 and now–and back then it included things like routinely starching and ironing clothes.

      • Could you imagine how long it would take to do the laundry – then you would have to cook dinner, wash the dishes and I am sure other things too!

  19. This is great, this 100 years ago today. It’s all the reason I write: to preserve a moment, a memory. Love this!

  20. I think it is pretty cool she got paid. From what my Grandparents talk about women usually only made money on the things they sold: eggs, veggies from the garden, bum lambs. I am impressed she actually got paid for her work.

  21. […] the October 11, you wrote that you’d received partial payment of $12 for your work. How much were you paid in […]

  22. […] probably was paid for helping with the corn harvest. On October 11, 1913 Grandma wrote that she received $12 as part of her pay for husking […]

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