Manual Labor

Students who attend manual labor schools are required to work outside of the classroom to generate income for the college.In addition to the benefits of work experience, students receive compensation for producing crops and crafts. This stipend helps keep tuition costs down and, in theory, allows people of all social classes to attend college.

Davidson College began as a manual labor school. The committee responsible for organizing the school included in its recommendations that, “For the promotion of good health and to diminish the expenses of education, all the students of this institution shall be required to perform manual labor, agricultural or mechanical. (Presbytery 89)

The founders of the college wanted to offer education to all young men of the regiona, citing the need for “a more general diffusion of knowledge” which should be “accessible to all members of the community” (Presbytery 79). By mandating labor, they believed that the students’ productivity would supplement their tuition, thereby making education more accessible.

First page of Pinckney Chambers letter

First page of Pinckney Chambers letter

The founders also hoped to enhance each student’s education and personal development. They believed that “the manual labor system as far as it as been tried, promises the most happy results in training up youth to virtuous and industrious habits with well cultivated minds” (Presbytery 79). In President Robert Hall Morrison’s inaugural address on 2 August 1838, he said that “educated men should prove that they are not above doing as well as praising the labor by which society lives” and that “by teaching those who are preparing for public life to regard labour as a pleasant recreation, and a reputable employment, many promising youth may be saved from contracting habits of idleness and dissipation” (Morrison 20-21).

President Morrison also discussed his desire that Davidson students would contribute to agricultural development. He noted that the progress of industry had been great in the early nineteenth century, but agriculture had not advanced much. “The wide field of investigation which determines the quality of different soils, . . . their adaptation to different plants, . . . adn the mode of constructing and using
labour-saving and labour-doing machines, have scarcely been touched in this country” (Morrison 21-22). Thus with the hope of financial relief, personal development, and agricultural advancement, Davidson College opened its doors as a manual labor school in 1837.

Many students worked in the fields, but some practiced other crafts as well. There were blacksmiths, cabinet makers, and carpenters as well as gardeners among the student body. The school awarded students reimbursements of their tuition based on their individual performance. For three hours work every day, the most efficient and productive workers received fifteen dollars per session, average workers received twelve dollars and lazy students received only nine dollars (Shaw 38). Despite the monetary compensation, students were not happy with the work shifts and did not find farming “a pleasant recreation.

First page of the Board of Trustee minutes

First page of the Board of Trustee minutes

Of the sixty-four students who entered the college in 1837, only eleven stayed on to graduate. Many of those who did not graduate shared the sentiments of Pinckney Chambers, a student who transferred to Caldwell Institute. He wrote back to friends at Davidson declaring that at his new school, “there is no labor attached to it (which is one of God’s blessings). All you have to do is pay your money and go to school” (Chambers).

Students who decided to stay at Davidson found numerous ways to avoid work. They “accidentally” broke equipment,and the maintenance shop could not keep up with the chipped axes and broken hoes that kept turning up. If a student’s job was to deliver wood, he would make the horse gallop, sending most of the wood out of the cart before they had made it to the place of delivery. One of the more creative pranks involved a  pig and the bell whose ringing signified the end of work. A group of students tied the pig to the bell and gave it enough corn to munch on until the students arrived safely at the work stations, then the pig, having finished the corn, moved away thereby ringing the bell and calling the students back to campus (Shaw 39-40).

These obstacles to an efficient manual labor system arose because neither the faculty nor the students benefited greatly. The amount of money the students received was not enough for the long hours which they put in over the course of a semester. The administration of the college did not benefit because of the cost of repair, maintenance, and discipline outweighed the value of the students’ work (Beaty 22). The manual labor system was a burden to the college and held it back from developing a strong reputation. On 27 January 1841, the trustees realized the flaws of the system and voted to eliminate it:

“Whereas one of the leading ends of this institution was so to reduce the cost of a Collegiate education, by connecting with it the present system of manual labour, that it might be brought with in reach of many in our land, who could not otherwise obtain it, & the guardians of this institution being convinced that said object is not likely to be effected by the present arrangement, & inasmuch as the funds are gradually sinking under it, & the advancement of the students materially retarded; we believe that fidelity to the interests of said institution & to the important trusts committed to us demand that prompt action be had on this subject…” (Board of Trustees, 27 January 1841)

Works Cited

Beaty, Mary. A History of Davidson College. Davidson: Briarpatch Press, 1988.

Chambers, Pinckney. Letter to John Sample. 9 December 1837. DC0111s. Pinckney Chambers, Letter, 1837. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Minutes. 27 January 1841. RG 1/1. Board of Trustees. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Morrison, Robert Hall. Inaugural Address. Philadelphia: William S. Martien, 1838.

Presbytery of Concord. Minutes. 1835-1836. Presbyterian Historical Society, Montreat, NC.

Shaw, Cornelia. Davidson College. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1923.

Author: Mary Ann Sellers and Tammy Ivins
Date: December 2003, April 2008

Cite as: Sellers, Mary Ann, and Tammy Ivins. “Manual Labor System” Davidson Encyclopedia
December 2003. 

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