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In a formal sense, apprenticeship is a contractual agreement between an expert practitioner of a trade, art, or profession and a novice in which, for a fixed period of time, the latter exchanges labor for training. Widely associated with the crafts, apprenticeship traces its origins in the West to the household economies of medieval Europe.

Origins and Practice

Until the separation of work from home that began in Europe and North America around 1800, households were also sites of production and reproduction. Since most families needed their children to contribute to their own support, the young nearly always worked alongside their parents in the home and on the land. In the process, they acquired their parents' vocational skills, learned responsibility, and internalized the values of their society. The practice of apprenticeship extended this family-centered model of work and learning to households not necessarily related by blood. It transferred children or adolescents from natal households to interim, external ones for a set period of timetypically four to seven years.

Throughout the early modern period, two distinct types of apprenticeship coexisted side by side. The first, a predominately instructional form, originated in the guilds of the Middle Ages. Practiced by prosperous merchants, professionals, and artisans, it placed sons in the households of prominent counterparts. Since guild oversight and the influence of parents protected the interests of the young, these apprenticeships generally resulted in genuine training. They were especially useful to large families, which sought to diversify the activities of their sons.

In places where guilds were strong, they exercised strict oversight over training. This permitted them to maintain prices by restricting entry into the trades. Good training mattered too, for it diminished guild exposure to competition from less skilled, nonsanctioned producers. When training became too restrictive, however, government officials and powerful consumers worked to weaken guild authority.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum, apprenticeship took a predominately economic form. Modest artisans and small landholders apprenticed out their children primarily for financial reasons. These groups generally lacked the capacity, due to limited land or capital, to employ the labor of all their children productively. Thus, they contracted out their "surplus labor" to families typically without children or with grown ones. Since food, shelter, and heat consumed most of most families' incomes, shifting older children to other households brought meaningful economic relief.

In turn, apprentices provided masters with needed labor at a marginal cost. In this context, however, training was a by-product of work, not the primary object of the exchange. Although masters promised to instruct their charges in a trade, they had an economic incentive to maximize work and skimp on training. Further, they often withheld crucial trade secrets from apprentices in order to prevent future competition. In the absence of guild regulation or influential parents, apprentice exploitation was widespread.

Neither form of apprenticeship was universal, however. Young women were only occasionally indentured to learn a trade, although they frequently served in extrafamilial households to acquire the so-called domestic arts and relieve their families of extra mouths to feed. In agricultural regions where primogeniture was practiced, the eldest son rarely left the household he was destined to inherit. Further, in areas where families typically pooled their labor, as in cottage industries or viniculture, apprenticeship outside the family household was uncommon, since parents could productively employ the labor of all their children.

Despite its variety (all manner of intermediate forms existed) apprenticeships shared several characteristics. First, both economic and educational forces were always at work, though the relative importance of each varied greatly. Further, whatever the context, apprentices acquired knowledge and skill inductively through work. Much like children who acquire language without formal study, apprentices learned through observation, imitation, practice, and interaction with experienced practitioners. Finally, all apprentices learned more than practical skills and the meaning of hard work; they also acquired their community's norms of moral and professional behavior. As teacher and role model, the master served a public functionone in which the community as a whole had a vested interest. Within individual households and shops, however, private interests always mediated this public function. As these grew more legitimate and openly pursued, the practice of apprenticeship shed its public purpose, metamorphosing into a private contract.

Modern Development

Apprenticeship experienced a steep, and apparently permanent, decline in the wake of industrialization. Insofar as it functioned as an economic exchange, its transformation into a wage relationship had several benefits. Wages greatly enhanced the freedom of the young, permitting them to limit their hours of work, bring an end to onerous household chores, escape the master's household and round-the-clock surveillance, and change employers freely. They also permitted poorer families to keep their older children at home by pooling incomes. Masters, too, were often happy to rid their homes of unruly and unreliable adolescents. Moreover, wage relations allowed them to hire and fire young workers as the need arose. However, since employment relations implied no training, employers had no obligation to instruct the young beyond what was required to perform the work at hand. Learning continued as a by-product of work, but as the division of labor grew within centralized factories, the scope of learning shrank.

It is easy to overstate the decline of apprenticeship, however. In rural areas it lingered on well into the 1900s. More significantly, firms throughout the industrializing regions of Europe and North America began to experiment with modern forms of apprenticeship after 1880. As workforce composition shifted from the low-skill textile, leatherworking, and needle trades to metals production, machine building, and metalworking, apprenticeships grew sharply. Employers in the most dynamic and technologically sophisticated sectors of the economy discovered that in-house training offered the only way to provide skilled labor in a period of breakneck expansion. By 1910 nearly all of the world's leading firms had established expensive apprenticeship programs, often accompanied by corporation schools. Few firms captured returns on these training investments, however.

Because of the way modern work conditions transformed work, the initial year of apprenticeship involved costly full-time training, divorced from productive labor. Firms sought to capture these costs during the final year of a three-year indenture, when apprentices produced more than they were paid for. In a period of growing demand for skills, however, apprentices often abrogated their contracts for higher wages elsewhere. This experience taught firms that it was cheaper to poach than to train. But when everybody poached and nobody trained, the global production of skills fell.

Two distinct responses to this quandary emerged. The first, pursued most systematically by U.S. firms, dispensed with apprenticeship. Rapid productivity gains associated with mass production in the 1920s permitted output to expand without a corresponding growth in the labor force. As average job tenure grew and the ratio of green to experienced workers declined, firms found it possible to dispense with preservice training and make do with on-the-job learning. Further contributing to this informal training regime, elaborate divisions of labor, narrow job definitions, and job ladders permitted a stepwise acquisition of experience and skill. Finally, U.S. firms turned decisively to high schools and colleges after 1920 for the recruitment of their white-collar personnel. Thus, apprenticeship survived primarily in the building trades, the one sector of the U.S. economy in which mass production strategies have limited application and unions have remained strong enough to regulate training.

The second strategy, typified by Germany, involved the collective regulation of apprenticeship, a solution built upon a social partnership between organized groups of employers and workers. Germans found it difficult to adopt American mass production strategies in the face of American competition, especially since their historic strength was in the production of custom-made industrial equipment and high-quality consumer goods. Moreover, the importance and modernization of Germany's crafts between 1890 and 1913 made the transition to highly regulated, instructional forms of craft, industrial, and commercial apprenticeship easier.

Gradually, Germany built an elaborate system of vocational training, testing, and certification that forced apprentices to honor their contracts and imposed public training standards on private training firms. In effect, the practice of apprenticeship professionalized most German occupations, while also providing an appealing educational alternative to full-time schooling for two out of every three Germans.

The great advantage of apprenticeship as an instructional device derives from the way it ties learning to real-world applications, imbuing the process with intrinsic motivation and rewards. In view of the general disaffection throughout the industrialized world with the shortcomings and inequities of school-based educational regimes, government officials, employers' organizations, and unions have developed a renewed interest in apprenticeship. Nowhere has this been greater than in Europe, where nearly all the major European countries (e.g., Germany, Austria, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom) have active vocational programs in which apprenticeship plays a central part. Americans, in contrast, generally consider vocational education to be second class and unworthy of a democratic society. Arguably, this has had more to do with how vocational programs evolved in the United States than with their intrinsic merits. Where apprenticeship programs have been well regulated, rigorous, and led to good jobs, they have proven popular, motivated students to learn, and enhanced social and economic equality.

See also: Child Labor in the West; Early Modern Europe; Economics and Children in Western Societies; European Industrialization; Medieval and Renaissance Europe; Vocational Education, Industrial Education, and Trade Schools.


Ainley, Patrick, and Helen Rainbird, eds. 1999. Apprenticeship: Toward a New Paradigm of Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Douglas, Paul. 1921. American Apprenticeship and Industrial Education. New York: Columbia University.

Hajnal, John. 1965. "European Marriage Patterns in Perspective." In Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography, ed. D. V. Glass and David E. Eversley. London: Arnold.

Hamilton, Stephen. 1990. Apprenticeship for Adulthood: Preparing Youth for the Future. New York: Free Press.

Land, Joan. 1996. Apprenticeship in England, 1600-1914. London: UCL Press.

Rorabaugh, W. J. 1986. The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hal Hansen

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Anglo-American System. Apprenticeships were labor contracts between two parties. One party was the master craftsman or artisan knowledgeable about a trade or business, and the other was a young boy or girl, often an orphan or a child from a poor family, who wanted to pre-pare for that trade. The Statute of Artificers in 1562 had standardized the institutional regulation of apprenticeship in England. The Poor Laws in 1601 had opened apprenticeships to the poorer classes. The American colonies imitated the formal English institution of apprenticeship in many respects, especially the careful moral and occupational supervision, but had modified the system to suit the needs of the colonial economy. Craft guilds, crucial to the system in Britain, never took hold in America. Regulations governing terms of service, entry fees, ages of entry into service, training, and property restrictions were loosened or ignored altogether, largely as a result of the shortage of labor. Apprentices in England would normally be required to serve seven years. In

America apprentices discovered that they could get employment without finishing their contracted time of service because their labor was needed, so apprenticeships of four years became more common. In the colonies boys could be apprenticed until they were twenty-one and girls until they were eighteen or until they married, but these terms varied. Females served apprenticeships under similar regulations as their male counterparts but had fewer occupational choices.

Terms of Contract. Apprenticeships could be either voluntary, with a young person choosing his or her master and negotiating a contract, or compulsory, as arranged by parents, guardians, or governing officers. The training was lengthy and expensive but virtually guaranteed the apprentice a useful skill for life, one that he or she had learned by example and participation. The indenture of apprenticeship was a legally binding document, spelling out the responsibilities of both parties. For example, certain exemplary behavior was expected of apprentices, who usually lived with their masters. They were not allowed to reveal trade secrets or misuse the masters goods. They could not marry, play illegal games, or frequent taverns and playhouses, nor could they be away from their places of work without permission from the master. The master, for his or her part, agreed to instruct the apprentice in a trade and to feed, clothe, lodge, and perhaps educate the youth. But terms could be negotiated. In eighteenth-century America, since labor was scarce, prospective voluntary apprentices were able to bargain with masters for more favorable contract terms, one of which was the education clause, which allowed

them some form of free basic education outside the workplace. They learned their reading and writing during hours when they were not working for their masters, usually at evening schools. Involuntary apprentices and females had less bargaining power in regard to the education clauses of their contracts. In any case boys received more education than girls. However, emphasis on education for apprentices was not uniform throughout the colonies. The Southern colonies were not as concerned about the formal education of apprentices, and by the middle of the eighteenth century slave apprenticeships were curtailed or outlawed in some colonies such as Georgia, which allowed blacks to be apprenticed only to coopers.

Rural v. Urban. Urban areas were filled with craftsmen of all sorts. Trades for males fell into different categories of difficulty and prestige. Among the easiest to learn and the lowest in terms of status were the shoemakers, tailors, and candlemakers. Those ranking somewhere in the middle were carpenters and blacksmiths. At the elite end of the artisan scale, and the most expensive in which to get apprenticed, were trades such as silversmithing and printing. Females chose among limited options. They were most often apprenticed in another household to learn domestic skills, but some received training in a craft or trade, such as spinning, dressmaking, hairdressing, millinery work, or embroidery. In rural areas apprenticeship choices for males and females were much narrower. They did not have the wide variety of specialized crafts that the cities and larger towns had but only those that supplied the needs of the community, such as shoemakers, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Furthermore, the demands of the rural agricultural economy meant that most children had to spend much of their time farming or doing farm chores. Their education choices were constricted as well. In mid-eighteenth-century cities and towns apprentices could meet their basic education needs, guaranteed by their contracts, in one of the numerous evening schools. But for rural apprentices most training and education took place in the home or from plantation tutors in their spare time. Boys learned crafts from their fathers, and girls learned housewifery from their mothers. Whatever reading and writing they learned was often provided informally by family members.

Opportunity. Apprenticeships provided an opportunity for children and adolescents to receive training in a craft or skill and at the same time to learn the basics of reading, writing, and sometimes ciphering. This was particularly important for poor children who usually had no other means of obtaining a formal education unless they could attend one or more years of a free school, set up by charitable means for the purpose of teaching children who could not afford schooling. But apprenticeships ideally offered a dual education: training in a skill as well as the rudiments of education, both of which were protected by law. In this way apprenticeship became an important vehicle for educating colonists in an era when formal education was neither required nor regulated.


Richard Beale Davis, Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585-1763 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978);


On 4 January 1757, John Waring, an Anglican clergyman in London and secretary for the Associates of Thomas Bray, wrote a letter to Benjamin Franklin, asking his opinion about the Associates plans to start a school for black children in Philadelphia. The following letter is Franklins response.

Cravenstreet, Jan. 3. 58.

I send you herewith the Extract of Mr. Sturgeons Letter, which I mentioned to you. He is, among us, esteemed a good Man, one that makes a Conscience of the Duties of his Office, in which he is very diligent; and has behaved with so much Discretion, as to gain the general Respect and Good-will of the People. If the Associates of Dr. Bray should think fit to make Tryal of a School for Negro Children in Philadelphia, I know no Person under whose Care it would be more likely to succeed. At present few or none give their Negro Children any Schooling, partly from a Prejudice that Reading and Knowledge in a Slave are both useless and dangerous; and partly from an Unwillingness in the Masters and Mistresses of common Schools to take black Scholars, lest the Parents of the white Children should be disgusted and take them away, not chusing to have their Children mixd with Slaves in Education, Play, &c. But a separate School for Blacks, under the Care of One, of whom People should have an Opinion that he would be careful to imbue the Minds of their young Slaves with good Principles, might probably have a Number of Blacks sent to it; and if on Experience it should be found useful, and not attended with the ill Consequences commonly apprehended, the Example might be followed in the other Colonies, and encouraged by the Inhabitants in general. I am, Sir, Your most humble Servant.


Source: Leonard W. Labaree, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, volume 7 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963), p. 356,

William E. Drake, The American School in Transition (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1955);

Huey B. Long, Continuing Education of Adults in Colonial America (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Publications in Continuing Education, 1976);

W. J. Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986);

Harold W. Stubblefield and Patrick Keane, Adult Education in the American Experience: From the Colonial Period to the Present (San Francisco, Cal.: Jossey-Bass, 1994).

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APPRENTICESHIP was a contractual agreement to prepare youth for labor in agriculture or the crafts. During the eighteenth century many occupations began the process of training new practitioners in their "art and mystery" through some form of apprenticeship. Naval officers and blacksmiths, carpenters and domestic servants, and sailors and yeoman farmers all might have begun as apprenticed, indentured laborers. By the end of the twentieth century the practice had become relegated mainly to building trades unions, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Steel Workers of America.

Craft apprenticeship began as a practice of European medieval guilds, which controlled prices and guaranteed the quality of products. Although commercial interests began to weaken the guilds during the sixteenth century, England's 1563 Statute of Artificers made some guild practices national law and ensured that craft apprentice-ships would continue. The statute also required all parents to apprentice their children to a craft or to agriculture if they did not have the resources to bind their children to a profession. The 1601 English Poor Law further bolstered craft apprenticeship by requiring local authorities to bind children whose parents would not. Both of these laws also expanded the practice of indentured apprenticeship to agriculture partly as a response to the thousands of desperate commoners created by the elimination of traditional land rights, an early stage of capitalism. As a result craft and agricultural apprenticeships were both common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although the practice of apprenticeship survived immigration to North America, English enforcement measures, such as the guilds, did not. Consequently agricultural and craft apprenticeship indentures were widely used, but the laws governing them had to be enacted locally. Each colony had its own enforcement codes based on the English model. Craft apprenticeship was common in early American cities prior to industrialization, though less so in the South, where enslaved African Americans worked in the crafts more frequently. Indentured agricultural labor was more common in the southern staple crop economies, where it fueled Virginia's first tobacco boom. But even in the South agricultural indentures became less common after the 1670s, when plantation masters began the dramatic shift to enslaving African laborers. Agricultural apprenticeship of white youth ceased altogether after the American Revolution, as servitude became increasingly associated with slavery and blackness.

The craft apprentice's indenture bound master and apprentice to specific obligations and entitlements. Parents, guardians, the courts, and orphanages negotiated indentures on behalf of children, but the documents typically named the master and the child and were signed by both. The agreements entitled the master to full authority over the youth until he or she attained maturity, usually the teens for girls and age twenty-one for boys. Masters promised to teach their trades and to provide shelter and food, usually clothing, and basic education for their apprentices. Contracts stipulated that the child was bound to obey his or her master in all legal circumstances. Eventually boys could expect to become journeymen and, upon completion of their training, to set up a shop of their own. Girls, usually apprenticed to become domestics, seamstresses, or upholsterers, usually expected to marry.

During the eighteenth century North American apprenticeship was transformed by masters, who introduced cash wages and disciplinary measures, and apprentices, who increasingly fled. Benjamin Franklin exemplified both trends. Franklin broke his own apprenticeship to his brother, a printer, in the 1720s by fleeing to Philadelphia and finding work in a printing office as a manager, a specialization masters developed to increase the productivity of their journeymen. Beginning in the 1730s Franklin made his fortune in printing not only through his famous frugality and industry but also by expanding the specialization of tasks and building capital with which to seed other printing enterprises. Franklin's success and celebrity were rare examples, but nothing was unique about these changes, which tended to break up, simplify, and discipline labor rhythms. When Adam Smith, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), extolled the value of the division of labor as the greatest source of "improvement in the productive powers," he acknowledged a process already in motion in Great Britain and North America (Wealth of Nations, p. 7). Claiming that "long apprenticeships are altogether unnecessary," Smith evoked the emerging capitalist ethos Franklin exemplified, and he foreshadowed the final demise of those aspects of craft apprenticeship that had crossed the Atlantic (Wealth of Nations, p. 138).

During the nineteenth century industrialization brought an end to craft apprentices' expectation of becoming shop masters. Between 1820 and the Civil War small manufactories in cities such as New York and Philadelphia began to expand their operations. Many masters lost their shops through competition with others, including former master craftspeople, who became factory owners. The journeymen increasingly could expect a life of wage labor rather than small shop ownership, and apprenticed boys and girls could expect to supply cheap unskilled child labor. Some shops, particularly in trades such as printing, no longer trained novices and beginners to practice a trade. Printers who could write copy, set and ink type, work the press, and bind volumes began to disappear. Specialization reduced the skill-level of many jobs. Unskilled, nonapprenticed, low-wage labor was all many masters of the steam presses of the antebellum period felt they needed.

But industrialization never completely eliminated craft apprenticeship. In 1869 a Massachusetts charitable organization surveyed masters and found that forty-six out of fifty-two had served apprenticeships. Yet these men had served without indentures, the contracts that bound masters and apprentices for a term of years and with specific obligations such as education. Instead they had served for wages at their masters' pleasure. In the post–Civil War era trade unions became the principle defenders and promoters of the apprentice system, insisting on certain ratios of apprentices to journeymen. But the ratios continued to decline, even in the building trades, where apprenticeship persisted through the twentieth century.


Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography and Other Writings. Edited by Ormond Seavey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Meldrum, Timothy. Domestic Service and Gender, 1660–1750: Life and Work in the London Household. New York: Longman, 2000.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975.

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Edwin Cannan, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976 [1904].

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.


See alsoIndustrial Revolution ; Labor ; Trade Unions .

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apprenticeship, system of learning a craft or trade from one who is engaged in it and of paying for the instruction by a given number of years of work. The practice was known in ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, as well as in modern Europe and to some extent in the United States. Typically, in medieval Europe, a master craftsman agreed to instruct a young man, to give him shelter, food, and clothing, and to care for him during illness. The apprentice would bind himself to work for the master for a given time. After that time he would become a journeyman, working for a master for wages, or he set up as a master himself. The medieval guilds supervised the relation of master and apprentice and decided the number of apprentices in a given guild. The Industrial Revolution, with its introduction of machinery, put an end to most of these guilds, but apprenticeship continues in highly skilled trades, at times competing with vocational training schools (see vocational education).

The terms of apprenticeship are regulated by many labor agreements as well as by law. The U.S. system of apprenticeships, established in 1937, is modeled on a 1911 Wisconsin law that named 200 occupations that benefited from apprenticeship programs. Some, such as plumbing and carpentry, required a mandatory apprenticeship period. The passage of the Manpower Development and Training Act in 1962 further encouraged apprenticeship programs. In Great Britain apprenticeship programs sometimes include outside schooling at company expense. The apprenticeship programs in continental Europe today differ from those in Great Britain and the United States by offering training in a wide range of fields, not just the skilled crafts.


See A. Beveridge, Apprenticeship Now (1963); N. F. Duffy, ed., Essays on Apprenticeship (1967); P. Mapp, Women in Apprenticeship (1973).

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apprenticeship refers to the period of service as a learner of a trade or handicraft. The apprentice, usually a boy at the beginning of his working life, is bound by a legal agreement to serve an employer for a fixed number of years in which the employer is reciprocally bound to instruct him. The system developed during the Middle Ages when guilds of craftsmen in particular trades, such as silversmiths and shoemakers, established control of their trades by regulating the number of recruits and their training. Contracts, or indentures, were enforced strictly and governed the premium to be paid for learning, the length of the training (usually seven years), and, in some cases, where apprentices lived. The statute of Artificers of 1563 gave magistrates power to compel compliance with apprenticeships. At the end of their apprenticeships trainees became journeymen, fully skilled tradesmen. If they could afford to set up in business they became masters in their own right. Apprenticeships were criticized as a system by which employers were enabled to pay low wages to a person whose skills might have been acquired in a relatively short time. Over time the power of many trade guilds declined and there were changes in the apprenticeship contracts. Amongst the more important was a reduction in the length of time to be served.

Apprenticeship in a wide variety of traditional skilled work continued into the second half of the 20th cent. However, challenges to such ‘training on the job’ combined with expanding provision of formal technical education led to a decline in traditional apprenticeship and the growth of full-and part-time education as a means of entry into skilled work.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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