Well . . . sometimes.
An examination of surviving contracts reveals that there was no set duration of an apprenticeship in colonial America. Some contracts specify a certain number of years, such as four or six or seven. Others say the apprenticeship will last until the boy reached twenty-one, no matter his age at the start. In the example above, Thomas Callahan was apprenticed for eight years and ten months (line 7). Evidence suggests that family apprenticeships—a man training a son or a younger brother—tended to be shorter than average. Occasionally a girl was apprenticed.
After the apprenticeship was completed, the young person could work for wages as a journeyman or, if he had the means, set up on his own as a master craftsman. A master was a tradesman who had his own shop. A master was not necessarily more skilled than a journeyman; the term indicated that he worked for himself rather than for wages. Some trades, like barbers or bookbinders, required relatively little investment in tools and overhead to set up one’s own shop. Others, like cabinetmakers or goldsmiths, required a good deal of start-up capital, making it difficult for a journeyman to become a master.