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Categories of Rural Workers in the Late Nineteenth Century

Even in the late nineteenth century, the majority of Germans lived in towns of fewer than 2,000 inhabitants; agriculture continued to be a major employer, especially in the east. This passage, drawn from a reform proposal published in the 1890s, shows that despite growing mechanization, farming involved long working days and depended heavily on the rhythms of the season. Various categories of rural workers received vastly differing terms of employment, wages, and provisions for room and board. This reformer believed that the rural worker’s increasingly rare integration into the farmer’s household constituted a moral threat – above all in the case of migrant workers drawn seasonally from outside Germany’s borders.

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Above all, in order to adequately appreciate the employment of farmhands, we deem the size of the agricultural operation to be highly significant. The statistics show the same thing. Southwestern Germany has the greatest number of farmhands; this indicates that today this category of worker fits better into operations in which the farmer himself usually works alongside [the others], where the farm laborers still sit at the dinner table with the employer. In this type of setting, the farmer’s son does not consider it beneath him to take a position as a farmhand. The situation is quite different on large estates. Here, the farm laborers are sent off to the servants' room. Preparing the meals is usually left up to a hired hand. There is no doubt that under such circumstances the catering for the farmhands may be – and indeed often is – very poor. The servants' board costs almost 60% of their entire income [Krämer]. Accordingly, farmhands place a very high emphasis precisely on food. [ . . . ]

So employers have proceeded, often compelled by the presumptuousness and coarseness of the young people, to offer a fixed compensation, differing according to location and custom, and to have board provided in the home of a working-class family. Apart from that, the farm laborers' board is also provided for on the farm by a “meal master” (dairyman, steward, head farm laborer) in return for a fixed payment in kind.

Through this practice, however, the high social significance attached to the employment of farmhands can become illusory. For, particularly in regions with a greater farming population (where the possibility of recruiting farm laborers is still highest), the farmhands' position is merely a social transitional phase, and is meant to complement and complete the domestic training of the young worker or farmer. Now this has become much more difficult, as the farmhands are fed away from the farm with a working-class family and might not even live on the farm itself except when guarding the stables, a task that is reassigned every week.

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