Revisited Myth #35: Apprenticeships lasted seven years.

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

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

Well . . . sometimes they did, but as a general rule, no.

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, even girls were 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 was master of 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. In some instances, the master of the shop might not even be skilled in that particular trade; he was merely the owner. Brett Walker, shoemaker in Colonial Williamsburg notes, “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.”

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.

3 Responses to Revisited Myth #35: Apprenticeships lasted seven years.

  1. My great-great-great Grandfather was sent off many times to work from the age of 6 on. He was supposed to be sent to work with a farmer until he was 21 but he kept running away for home.
    http://middlemaybooks.com/2014/12/09/writing-about-family/

  2. Excellent post, Mary. I’ve been enjoying this blog for the past couple years. Thanks for making this info available. It’s hard not to wince when I hear these myths repeated.

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