Myth #35: Apprenticeships in colonial America lasted seven years.

photo courtesy of Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

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.

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One Response to Myth #35: Apprenticeships in colonial America lasted seven years.

  1. Brett Walker says:

    Again, a good job on this one, Mary. It is a common question in our shop, and one surrounded with myth, mystery, and misunderstanding. If you’re interested, I could supply you a few more myths on this topic alone.

    However, I wish to comment most of all on the topic you broached somewhat – viz., that of shop masters. The French would make a distinction between those master who have been trained in the trade at one point or another (“sewing masters”) and those who were not (“masters”). Thus, it does not always follow that a master even can perform the actual trade, and in some (many?) cases is simply the CEO of the shop, running its business affairs whilst a shop foreman oversees the day-to-day production.

    A master of a shop would, in fact, often have a goodly number of Journeyman (period images often show 3-7 Journeymen per shop) working for him/her. One of the larger shops in Virginia (Norfolk) had seventeen “seats” (1 “seat,” or bench implies one Journeyman). It was run by a woman (Mary Wilson) who inherited the shop from her late husband; and who, whilst perhaps not having served an apprenticeship herself, had enough knowledge of the business from working alongside her husband to run the shop effectively,…that is, until the Revolutionaries burned Norfolk on 1 January 1776.

    Not many presumed to be masters, though. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that many Journeymen were content to earn a daily wage and go home with no further thought of the business, rather than make the higher wages (hopefully, but not always) of a shop master and to bear the burthen and risk of business ownership. In this respect, it is not unlike today, where few are entrepreneurial, and most are happy to work for an employer to collect a fortnightly paycheque.

    Again,…good job. Keep it up, and look to me to support your work as,

    Yr. Humbly Devoted Srvnt.,

    Brett Walker, Shoemaker

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