Colonial Apprenticeship | Popular Woodworking Magazine

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Commercial label. This trade card by W. Buttre, circa 1813, shows chair trainees at work. Courtesy, The Winterthur Library: Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.

A brief history of a not so romantic carpentry education system.

ANDn from the renewed interest in woodworking in the 1970s, especially among amateurs and professionals in the small workshop, there is talk of restoring an apprenticeship program similar to the one that existed hundreds of years ago. But what was that apprenticeship system like?

To describe it, I will go a little out of my usual subject of finishing, because shops before the American Revolution were small and finishing was too simple and too small a part of the job to have spawned a specialized craft of “finisher”. Those who took care of the finishing touches were the carpenters themselves, usually divided into specialized categories: cabinetmakers, seats, carpenters, watchmakers, turners, etc.

And these carpenters were part of the broader category of artisans / mechanics (craftsmen were often referred to as “mechanics” at the time), which included all skilled craftsmen, from tailors and shoemakers to silversmiths. So any discussion of finishing apprenticeship is actually a discussion of craft apprenticeship in general.

The English Guilds

Starting from the Middle Ages in Europe, each trade was organized into its own corporation made up of masters and apprentices to protect the interests of the members. By controlling the number of apprentices admitted and the standards of education – for example, the requirement to produce a “masterpiece” at the end of the training – the corporations were closed labor markets that were able to maintain high wages and standards.

Apprenticeship had a much broader scope, however, than simple vocational training in which special skills (“art”) and special knowledge (“mystery”) were passed down from one generation to the next.

The boys (they were almost always boys) were only 12 to 14 years old when they were apprentices to a master craftsman. So an apprenticeship was also meant to instill adequate moral development supervised by the socially approved master and was a means of control over potential socially disruptive teenagers.

Not all the boys became apprentices, of course. The children of farmers usually became farmers. Children of the affluent class were usually educated to join that class. Many kids have grown up to join the growing merchant class. And many young people from poor families grew up to do manual jobs, join the army, become servants or even beggars.

There was a hierarchy among the trades, determined in part by the earning power of the trade and in part by how much it cost to become a master. For example, after completing an apprenticeship as a tailor, all a person needed to start a business was needle and thread and a tape measure.

Conversely, a cabinetmaker required a wide range of tools, so it was rare for a graduate apprentice to be able to afford to open a shop. Almost always, he had to work many years as a craftsman to save the funds.

The term “traveler” derives from the graduate apprentice’s need to go wherever he could get the best pay.

Colonial America

Colonial America was made up of English colonies, of course, so England’s laws and traditions applied here too. But although the apprenticeship path to learn a trade and develop adequate moral standards flourished, especially in the Northern colonies, the guilds never caught on.

The reasons were a shortage of skilled labor, free land in the west, great distances and an underdeveloped legal system. While in England it was rare for an apprentice to run away from a master before learning the trade (he would never find work elsewhere), it was not uncommon in America.

You may recall the story of Benjamin Franklin fleeing his apprenticeship as a typographer in Boston to Philadelphia long before he completed his training. Once in Philadelphia, he represented himself as an artisan printer and had no problem finding work.

In America, you were then (and still are today) who you say you are, as long as you can do it.

The price that was paid for this freedom was a generally inferior quality of craftsmanship to that which existed in England. We have numerous examples of the highest quality furniture that survived the colonial period, so you may not have thought of the settlers’ skills as below average. But the skills of many were, and their furniture did not survive.

While you are contemplating this, keep in mind that many of the artisans who work in America were trained in England or elsewhere. It is still so. For example, in a profession that I am very familiar with, a very disproportionate share of the most skilled furniture restorers in the United States today have been trained somewhere else.

Furthermore, the handicraft was more developed in the northern colonies than in the south. In the southern colonies, much of the work, skilled or unskilled, was done by servants or contract slaves. The apprenticeship system was not as well developed.

The life of an apprentice

Building trades. These illustrations show the apprentices at work in a turning and joinery. From “The panorama of professions and trades; or Every Man’s Book ”by Edward Hazen (1837). The book, available free online, is a fascinating fictionalized read on educating children for future professions.

Apprenticeship in America could be very hard, partly because the teacher himself could be poor and partly because teachers often took advantage of apprentices, forcing them to do menial jobs for years without teaching them anything about the trade.

In the colonies there was always a chance that the apprentice would escape, so masters often postponed training until later years to try to prevent this from happening.

Furthermore, the apprentices were often poorly fed and beaten. Remember they were just kids.

The apprenticeship usually began with a short probationary period, from weeks to a year and a half, for the boy’s teacher and father to decide if they wanted to continue the relationship. Then a contract was signed between the teacher and the father, which usually specified that the teacher would feed, dress and host the boy and teach him the trade. The master may also be required to provide general education.

In England, the father usually had to pay a fee to the master. In America this was most often the case only with higher-ranking trades.

At the end of the contractual period, which could be up to seven years, the master supplied a suit to the “graduate” apprentice and sent him on his way.

Sometimes, the master agreed to pay the worker wages to the apprentice in his later years.

But the reverse was also common. It was cheaper to keep an apprentice than to hire a worker, so masters often had apprentices who did the jobs of workers for as long as they could get away with it. Their success with this usually had something to do with the state of the economy at the time: did the apprentice have other opportunities?

Apprenticeship today

When we think of apprenticeship in the 20th and 21st centuries, we don’t mean that it is as all-encompassing as it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Usually we mean it is a compromise: to work for free, or at least for a very short time, for a fairly short time, in exchange for an education in the trade.

This is very different from what an apprenticeship once meant.


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