Lives of day workers (dagloners)1

Last revised on Oct 16th, 1999. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.   

   Dagloners were men, although some women (daglonsters) and even children also worked for a daily wage. A dagloner was a worker who worked for a boer but did not live on the boer's farm, so he himself had to provide food, clothing, living quarters for his family and other needs. In Flanders as a whole in 1822 a dagloner earned 1 - 1.5 Francs per day, a woman 0.6 - 0.9 Francs. If only the man worked his wife could afford to provide only a basic diet of porridge (possibly made with milk), soup and potatoes. So to supplement this meager diet she had to work and often the children too, especially if they were numerous, as they usually were. In the earlier somewhat more prosperous period around 1800 with a man's earnings she might have been able to add some rye bread and sometimes some cheese and occasionally, herring.

   Around 1820 the working dagloner in the winter ate at:
       5:30 am: rye bread and a cup of coffee adding a herring or bacon to that:
       8:30 am: rye bread, coffee and herring; possibly cheese or bacon
      12:00 p.m.: potatoes, soup with noodles and some greens but no meat, or porridge made with milk when available
       3:00 p.m.: rye bread with cheese or herring
       6:30 p.m.: rye bread with stewed (mashed?)
On Sundays sausage or some beef or pork would be added.
   In the summer the work day was longer, running from 5 am to 7:30 p.m.; the meal times were adjusted accordingly.

   Most dagloners, being the sons of farmers, tried to find a piece of land they could rent, perhaps 1/10 to 1/5 of an acre on which they grew food for their family. A goat for milk and rabbits for meat often were kept in separate quarters in the house!. They often would buy little pigs and fatten them for 6 to 9 months, sell one or more, but slaughtered and preserved one for family use as hams and bacon which were soaked in brine of 4 - 6 weeks and then smoked. In these various ways they could they could save their earnings for other essential but expensive needs: Shoes which might cost earnings from 5 days' work!

   The family usually lived in a thatched cottage built in the wattle-and-daub style like the one below.2


   Work was sometimes hard to find and seasonal. For example, a dagloner might work full time for a farmer in May and June on two hectares of flax. While it grew he would go to Holland to cultivate beets. The flax would mature in about 100 days, giving him another 7-8 days of work harvesting flax and put it to soak in water ('retting') to loosen the fibers. Depending on the weather, retting might take up to 8 weeks. Then after washing, drying, beating of the stalks to loosen the fibers, followed by combing, the flax fibers would be ready for <--spinning3 and then weaving4--> into linen.
In August the dagloner would go back to the flax field to cultivate it, often using just a hoe and pick, to prepare for seeding the next crop.

   If a dagloner had the capital to purchase a loom he might contract with the farmer to spin and weave the flax from this field. However most could not afford to buy a loom but they might rent one from a contractor who would provide a loom and often flax too. In return he would require the dagloner to the spin and weave the flax he had provided into linen. In either case, after the wife had spun the flax fibers the dagloner would weave it into linen fabric. Because farming work fell off in the autumn, spinning and weaving would be a way for the dagloners family to make a living in the winter.
   Fortunately for the dagloners, the machines available in the factories early in the century tended to to break the flax fibers. This probably explains the persistence of the cottage-based
linen industry right up to the end of the 19th century, long after cottage-based wool spinning and weaving of wool had been displaced to factories that did this more cheaply.
   The dagloner's children often would obtain work beginning in their 10th or 11th year! In
"weeding gangs" of 30 to 40 children were assembled by a 'weeding boss' who contracted with farmers to have their fields weeded and would move them from field to field. Each child would would work daily from dawn to 7 - 8 in the evening to earn about the half the wage of an adult dagloner. The 'weeding boss' often had a grocery story as a sideline which mothers were expect to patronize to assure their children found work with the 'boss'!

The dagloner's wife found little work outside their cottage: perhaps a few days a week in February laying the flax in water to soak ('retting') and 2 weeks work at the end of March planting potatoes. She might find a month work weeding (click on picture) but from the end of March to the end of April she was usually unemployed. In June she probably could work a few days in the flax field.

   There is no doubt that the dagloners and their families who at the bottom of the economic ladder suffered most during 'hard times'!

   Some probably glimpsed the possibility that their children
might do better if they had an education.

1Source: "Het Land van Waas" by Prosper Thuysbaert, published in 1913 as Volume 32 of the "Annalen" of the the Historical Society of Waasland
 Extracts of Chapter VII of that article were provided by Alfred Van der Gucht, President of the Historical Society of Waasland
2Photo courtesy "Domein Bokrijk (B)" <
3Painting by Hendrik de Braekeleer
4Drawing by Vincent Van Gogh


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