While researching the history of the U.S. building trades, I stumbled on a fascinating wage study completed for the Department of Labor in 1928, which tracks the wages paid to workers in the building trades from the earliest periods of Colonial America up to 1928 (see “History of Wages in the United States from Colonial Times to 1928," available free from Google books). While it doesn’t bring wage data up to the present, this slice of early Colonial history has proved to be a keystone to understanding the experience of trade workers in Colonial America.

Why do I care so much about the past? The status of builders at the time our country was founded has, I believe, enormous symbolic significance to the building trades that might help restore pride in the trades and reverse some of the negative characterizations of our profession. (For more on this thesis, see my article “How Will Construction Solve the Skilled Labor Crisis,” Sep/19.) As an industry, we need to change the narrative to show the trades as lucrative and challenging careers. The 1928 wage study is fascinating to me because it paints a picture of what life in the trades once was for many workers and reveals some of the social conditions that have stayed with the profession through time.

At the founding of our country, skilled labor was extremely scarce in the Colonies, and builders were paid three to four times what workers with similar skills were paid in Europe. Those high wages were an enticement to recruit more immigrants to the colonies. Gabriel Thomas, who wrote a history of Pennsylvania in 1698 for the purpose of recruiting workers in England to emigrate, asserts that “the encouragements are very greate and inviting.” Of course, the money paid for skilled labor was also a sore point for many. As the wages study notes, “Governor Winthrop, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared in 1630 that the ‘scarcity of workers caused them to raise their wages to an excessive rate.’” It details that “letters and reports from agents of the British companies engaged in colonial settlement, and from the early colonial governors, express consternation amounting to distress over the ‘exhorbitant demands’ of craftsmen and laborers.”

In the image above, the wage figures in parentheses show dollar equivalents in 1928 (the time of this study). A 1928 dollar equals about $15 today. These wages seem low, but there wasn’t much to spend money on—except land. Though the details around landownership and indentured labor were sometimes complicated, salable land was plentiful and, at around $2 an acre, affordable to many trade workers.
In the image above, the wage figures in parentheses show dollar equivalents in 1928 (the time of this study). A 1928 dollar equals about $15 today. These wages seem low, but there wasn’t much to spend money on—except land. Though the details around landownership and indentured labor were sometimes complicated, salable land was plentiful and, at around $2 an acre, affordable to many trade workers.

A glance above at an excerpt from the wages study shows this condition existing in the colonies for almost a century, and it’s hard to think of these rates as very great or inviting. The study notes the 1928 dollar equivalent in parentheses, and in today’s dollars, it is still very low as a day rate (a 1928 dollar translates to about $15 in today’s dollars). Yet details in the wage study give us rich insight into the life of Colonial tradesmen that must be considered when comparing their status to a modern context. The quality of life in the Colonies was not what we think of today. Homes were heated with fireplaces; churches were entirely unheated. Nothing in the way of china, glassware, or carpets existed, to say nothing of lighting, indoor plumbing, appliances, or cars. In other words, there were few commodities to buy. What constituted wealth was land, and owning land afforded political rights and prestige in the Colonies. At a rate of about $2 an acre, land was accessible to trade workers in ways it never was to commoners in Europe, making the building trades an attractive way to make a living in the nascent United States.