Apprenticeship and Occupational Training

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Apprenticeship and Occupational Training


European Background. Children, both girls and boys, generally began their occupational education within the

household of their birth. Most would remain there, being taught farming or housewifery as they grew to adulthood. Others, however, lived with relatives or friends and essentially acquired much of the same occupational instruction. A legal and contractual arrangement for occupational training, apprenticeship emerged from the European craft and trade guilds of the Middle Ages. In the apprenticeship system boys, usually between ten and fourteen years old, were trained under the supervision of a master craftsman or merchant in a particular trade or profession for several years, most often until they were twenty-one. Many guilds required that the apprentices parents pay the master a fee for his services. Through apprenticeship the guilds regulated entry into the trades, maintained skill levels, and secured cheap labor for the masters. Under the terms of the indenture (contract), the master acted in loco parentis, and the apprentice promised to serve his master well, living in his household while learning the craft. A young man who had completed his apprenticeship successfully would be admitted by a specific guild as a journeyman and allowed to work with a master craftsman for wages. After serving a fixed tenure as a journeyman and having proven his craftsmanship, the journeyman could apply to the guild for master craftsman status, which allowed him to establish his own shop and ply his particular craft. Outside the guild system girls were sometimes apprenticed by their parents to become seamstresses or housemaids, serving until they turned eighteen or got married.

Variation. Aside from the voluntary apprenticeship system described above, there was also a compulsory type which was almost always concerned with poor or orphaned children indentured by church or civil officials whose primary concern was finding a decent home for the child. Occupational training was often implicit in such indentures but decidedly secondary to custodial concerns. The guild might be involved but quite often was not in compulsory apprenticeship, which was an effort to maintain social stability in the face of dramatic economic changes. Both types of apprenticeship were transferred to the American colonies, but not the guild system, which exerted little influence except in parts of Spanish America.

Latin America. Of all the European powers Spain was most successful in transplanting its guild system in America, or at least in Mexico, where the sixty guilds functioning in the mother country exercised similar authority over the crafts in Mexico City. Only those of Spanish background were supposed to practice the skilled crafts, such as blacksmithing or carpentry. However, even in Mexico City, mestizos and mulattoes could on occasion get apprenticeship training, and out in the countryside racial mixture was of less concern than skills. In New Mexico and Texas the Indian missions often trained young native men and women in Spanish arts and crafts because such skills were so much in demand on the frontier, where beautifully decorated churches bespoke the skill of Indian and colonial artisans. However, the priesthood and the professionstogether with the apprenticeship training and study required for themwere closed to Indians and African slaves. In the borderlands as elsewhere in Spanish America, most boys acquired occupational skills from their fathers or brothers, just as girls learned housewifery from their mothers and sisters.

New France. As in the Spanish borderlands, apprenticeship provided training in the crafts for boys or young men in New France. However, the regulations came not from the guilds, which exercised little influence in New France, but from the Supreme Council of the province. There are also records of young women who served apprenticeships with seamstresses. Among the leading crafts were blacksmithing, shoemaking, cooperage, and joinery. Apprentices were usually between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, and they typically served three years. Some indentures specifically exempted the apprentice from performing menial tasks, but other contracts spelled out such mundane duties as running errands, carrying wood, or farmwork. The master usually provided food, clothing, shelter, and some spending money to the apprentice, who seldom had to pay the master an enrollment fee. Moreover, if the apprentice was less than sixteen years old, the master was obliged to release him for catechism classes until his first communion. Contractual apprenticeship training centered in the population centers, such as Louisbourg, Quebec, or Montreal, where 25 percent of the population resided. More often than not, a craftsman trained his sons to his own or related trades. Apprenticeships in the professionslaw, medicine, or commercewere difficult to acquire and usually limited to relatives. Rather than an apprenticeship in the crafts or a career as a farmer, large numbers of young men opted for the adventurous life in the fur trade as coureurs de bois, much to the disappointment of clerics and government officials alike. After 1700 officials in New France discouraged racial mixing even though Indian and French liaisons had been encouraged before 1689, but it is unclear the extent to which discrimination became institutionalized in terms of occupational training.

New Netherland. In the absence of the guilds, apprenticeship in the Dutch province was not well regulated, like virtually everything else there, until the advent of Peter Stuyvesant, who served as director general from 1647 until 1664. As was the case in the Dutch republic, apprenticeship indentures in New Netherland, especially in the 1650s, generally called for the youth to be taught reading, writing, and perhaps arithmetic as well as a specific trade. For example, Evert Duyckinck agreed in 1648 to take young Cornelis Jansen for eight consecutive years, provide him with adequate food, clothing, and shelter, and teach him the trade of glazer or such [other] trade as Evert can and to have him taught reading and writing. The poor and orphaned children in New Amsterdam were the responsibility of the orphan masters, who arranged apprenticeship for the unfortunate youngsters. In Beverwyck the Dutch Reformed consistory usually assumed that chore as part of its service to the poor.

British Background. Apprenticeship regulations in England were regularized by two Elizabethan parliamentary enactments. The first was the Statute of Artificers of 1562, which turned conventional trade practices and local employment regulations into national economic policy. According to this law persons between the ages of twelve and sixty who were not otherwise employed were compelled to service in husbandry. Another major provision fixed apprenticeship service at seven years and standardized the rights and duties of both the master and apprentice. The second statute, the Poor Law of 1601, dealt more explicitly with the economic dislocation and problem of vagrancy as tenants lost their traditional homesteads because of the enclosure movement. While restricting itinerant begging, this legislation called upon every parish to elect overseers of the poor who were empowered to erect workhouses where children of the poor worked as apprentices and learned a trade in the budding textile industry. The Statute of Artificers of 1562 and the Poor Law of 1601 were models for Englands North American provinces in regulating apprenticeship. As in England, the master possessed the rights of a parent over the apprentice, who might be reasonably

punished for misdeeds. By the same token, the apprentice did have the right to complain against unfair treatment. However, the British guilds were not transplanted to colonial towns, and consequently trade apprenticeships, whether in terms of tenure or quality of workmanship taught, were never as standardized, or as important, in America as in the mother country.

Chesapeake Colonies. In 1643 Virginia passed its first apprenticeship law. It sought to protect orphans, of whom there were many because of the Chesapeakes devastating disease environment, from unscrupulous guardians who might otherwise neglect their wards inheritance and education. Guardians and overseers were instructed to educate such orphans in Christian religion and in rudiments of learning and to provide for them necessaries according to the competence of their estates. In 1646, drawing extensively on the Poor Law of 1601, the Virginia assembly called upon officials to choose two poor children from each county, either male or female, and send them to Jamestown, where they would work in the public flax house and be taught carding, knitting, and spinning. Virginias legal code of 1661-1662 instructed the parish vestries to apprentice out orphaned, illegitimate, or poor children. In 1668 vestries and individual counties were further authorized to set up a workhouse school. Finally, an apprenticeship law passed in 1672 left the county justices in charge of caring for poor children. Virginia apprenticeship statutes passed in 1705, 1727, 1751, and 1768 instructed masters to teach reading and writing respectively to male orphans, poor boys apprenticed, orphaned females, and illegitimate children of white females. Such regulations were not always rigorously enforced, but they could hardly be ignored. In 1668 Maryland passed legislation requiring orphans with sufficient estate to be schooled; other orphans less well off were to be apprenticed. Another Maryland statute of 1715 ordered justices annually to examine the relationship between masters and apprentices to make sure the former were teaching the latter their respective trades.

Lower South. None of the other provinces in the South demonstrated as much concern over apprenticeship as Virginia. In 1715 North Carolinas only legislation on apprenticeship, like the Maryland law of 1688, called for orphans to be schooled if they could afford it, but if not, to be bound out to some Handcraft Trade until they came of age. A South Carolina statute of 1695 allowed for poor children to be bound out but said nothing specifically about learning the trade. Georgia passed no provincial regulations before the American Revolution. Despite the paucity of pertinent provincial legislationand most of that related to paupersapprenticeship indentures found in the Carolinas and Georgia in the eighteenth century ranged from agreements for poor children, male and female, to craft and trade indentures that emphasized that the master would provide not only training in a craft but also instruction in reading and writing.

New England. In 1642, because of the great neglect of many parents and masters in training up their children in learning, and labor and other imployments that may be profitable to the common wealth, the Massachusetts Bay General Court instructed town selectmen to make sure that parents and masters were properly educating the young. The 1642 law dictated that children should not only be prepared for future employment but also taught to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of the land. Negligent parents and masters might be fined, and selectmen were empowered to take apprentices and poor children from families that were incapable of fulfilling their responsibilities to them. A 1648 revision of the law added the requirement that children be exercised weekly in some orthodox catechism. Other New England colonies followed Massachusetts Bays example and passed similar legislation: Connecticut in 1650, New Haven in 1655, and Plymouth in 1671, the latter adding a reading requirement to legislation it had passed in 1641 regarding the apprenticing of poor children. In 1703 Massachusetts required that poor children apprenticed by town selectmen learn writing as well as reading. Subsequent amendments passed in 1710, 1720, and 1731 specifically mandated that poor male apprentices be taught reading, writing, and cyphering (arithmetic). Of the New England colonies only Rhode Island, whose government embraced separation of church and state, refused to copy Massachusetts Bays legislation on apprenticeship. None of New Englands provincial laws set the number of years for apprenticeship service, but Boston tried in 1670 to require at least a seven-year term, though it later apparently abandoned its enforcement.

Middle Colonies. Following the English conquest of New Netherland in 1664, the Dukes Laws of 1665 endorsed the continuation of customary labor practices as the former Dutch colony became New York. Serving an apprenticeship was one way one could become a freeman of New York City, with the privileges of practicing a trade and voting in elections. Not until 1766 did New Yorks provincial assembly address the status of apprenticeship, basically just affirming its legality and restating the reciprocal rights and obligations of masters and apprentices or servants. In New Jersey the Quaker Assembly of West Jersey regulated apprenticeship as early as 1683. However, local town and county regulations prevailed, and not until 1774 did New Jerseys assembly require that masters and mistresses teach their apprentices to read and write. In 1682 the Pennsylvania legislature passed a similar act requiring masters to teach their apprentices to read and write, though the law itself was not enforced, and subsequent provincial laws on apprenticeship dealt with the disposition of various groups of poor children. Many Quaker charity schools were founded with the stated purpose of educating children until they were fit to be put out as apprentices. Delaware generally followed Pennsylvania customs and law regulating apprenticeship.

Slavery. Although the southern colonies had the most enslaved persons, slavery existed throughout the colonies. Slave artisans were found in the northern cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston as well as southern cities such as Annapolis and Charleston. They often possessed considerable freedom, living apart from their master but paying him or her a portion of their income and sometimes buying their freedom and that of their wives and children. Such slave artisans were known to teach their sons the family trade. Young black males might be apprenticed to white artisans, or Anglo-American craftsmen might teach their own slaves. Southern plantations early on organized procedures for teaching crafts to young slaves. A review of the South Carolina Gazette from 1732 to 1776 provides a catalogue of twenty-eight different trades in which slaves were trained. Throughout the South and much of the North, slaves were involved in the clothing and building trades.

Aristocratic Trades. In British North America voluntary, legal apprenticeship became increasingly less important because skilled labor was so much in demand that a lengthy apprenticeship was no longer necessary. However, throughout British America legal apprenticeship remained the primary way of entering the aristocratic trades of commerce, medicine, and law. As the eighteenth century progressed, more and more formal schooling, including a college education or study at the Inns of Court, became standard for those in the elite. However, serving an apprenticeship for several years was the way to learn the craft and make the contacts necessary to succeed as a merchant, doctor, or lawyer. Parents usually had to pay substantial fees to secure such apprenticeships for their sons. The initial fee for entering a mercantile apprenticeship ranged from £50 to £100. Some lawyers, especially the wealthier ones, charged £200, and doctors might require even more of an initial payment from aspiring young men. Nor was it unusual for the tenure of an apprenticeship in commerce, medicine, or law to last seven years. By the middle of the eighteenth century, established and usually well-trained lawyers and doctors, worried by the lack of training and competition from other practitioners, began urging a college requirement for lawyers and licensing examinations for doctors.


Edward Gaylord Bourne, Spain in America, 1450-1580 (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1962);

Lois Green Carr, The Development of the Maryland Orphans Court, 1654-1715, in Law, Society, and Politics in Early Maryland, edited by Aubrey C. Land, Lois Green Carr, and Edward C. Papenfuse (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 41-64;

Margaret Gay Davies, The Enforcement of English Apprenticeship: A Study in Applied Mercantilism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956);

William J. Frost, The Quaker Family in Colonial America (New York: St. Martins Press, 1973);

Marcus Wilson Jernegan, Laboring and Dependent Classes in Colonial America, 1607-1783 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931);

Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America, revised edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1965);

Dorothy H. Smith, Orphans in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, 1704-1709, Maryland Magazine of Genealogy, 3 (1980): 34-42;

Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).