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Q & A: Colonial Apprenticeships


An apprenticeship was a legal contract between the apprentice and master craftsman. These contracts were often drawn up, signed before the courts, entered into a deed book, and considered binding. As part of the contract, an apprentice agreed to keep trade secrets, obtain his master’s permission before leaving the premises, and abstain from vices such as frequenting taverns and the theater. Most important, the apprentice agreed to work for the master without pay for the term of the contract. The contract also listed the obligations of the master craftsman to his apprentice. Masters provided basic education (reading, writing, and arithmetic), training in the craft, room and board, and sometimes a set of tools or clothes on completion of the apprenticeship. The following Q&A answers several frequently asked questions about colonial apprenticeships.

The master taught his apprentice all of the "arts and mysteries" of the tradeHow long were apprenticeships?

This often-asked question is difficult to answer because many apprenticeship contracts (indentures) were private arrangements between a master and an apprentice's parents and were not recorded in the public records. Apprenticeships ordered by the courts for orphans and poor children were recorded, but their lengths varied widely or were often stated only as to age twenty-one. Of the 110 apprenticeships recorded in York County, Virginia, from 1745 until 1789, 34 were “until twenty-one” and 64 were from four to seven years.

At what age were children apprenticed?

The ideal age for an apprenticeship might be considered fourteen, so that a full seven-year apprenticeship could be served by age twenty-one, but this was seldom the actual practice. The shorter apprenticeships common in the American colonies were achieved by starting at a later age. Orphans were sometimes apprenticed quite young.

Were the lengths of apprenticeships different in different trades?

York County, Virginia, records show as much difference within the same trade as between trades. Differences that Europe's guild systems may have imposed were not found here because of the chronic labor shortage.

What was an indenture of apprenticeship?

An indenture of apprenticeship was a legal contract expressing the obligations of both the master and the apprentice. By the eighteenth century, the content was fairly well standardized (occasionally printed forms were used). The body of the following sample indenture is typical:

Witnesseth that the said John Stevens with the advice and consent of his Mother Anne Stevens doth put himself an Apprentice to the said George Charleton to learn the Trade, art, and Mistery of a Taylor and with him after the manner of an Apprentice to serve till he arrives to the Age of Twenty-one Years to be fully compleat & ended During which time the said Apprentice his said Master faithfully shall serve, his secrets keep his Lawfull Commands Obey He Shall not contract Matrimoney within the said Term he shall not haunt Ordinary's nor Absent himself from his Masters Service Day or Night unlawfully but in all things as a Faithfull Apprentice he shall behave himself towards his said Master and Family during the said Term AND the said George Charleton Best means he can shall Teach and Instruct or cause to be taught and instructed AND doth hereby Promise and oblige himself to find for his said Apprentice Good and Sufficient Meat Drink Washing Lodging & Cloathing during the Said Term and to Teach him to Read & Write and at the expiration of his term of servitude the said George Charleton obligeth himself to pay unto his apprentice what the law allows in such cases & agrements . . . At a Court of Hustings for the City of Williamsburg held the 5th Day of September 1748.

What laws governed apprenticeship in Virginia?

The basis of colonial laws of apprenticeship were the English 1562 Statute of Artificers and the 1601 Poor Law, which standardized customs long recognized and enforced by the guilds and local authorities.

The Virginia Poor Law of 1672 gave county courts the power to place all children, whose parents were unable to raise them, as apprentices. Churchwardens were ordered to report children in this category.

The Orphan Act of 1705 empowered the Orphan's Courts to bind out all orphans whose estates were too small to support them. It also gave the court the power to hear complaints of apprentices for ill use by their master or failure to teach his trade.

Direct, hands-on experience was a key component of apprenticeship trainingWas there a guild system in Virginia?

No. By the eighteenth century, the guild system in England was weak, and it was not established in Virginia.

Did apprentices have to pay for their apprenticeships?

It was not uncommon for a master to charge parents an apprenticeship fee, and even orphans sometimes had to pay.

Were apprentices paid?

Apprentices were provided with room and board, and sometimes given a sum of money or set of tools at the end of their apprenticeship. Occasionally they were paid during the last few years of the term.

Were African Americans apprenticed?

Yes, both free blacks and slaves were apprenticed. In the case of a slave, the legal contract was between the slave owner and the tradesman. The building trades and plantation support trades, such as coopering and blacksmithing, relied heavily on skilled black labor. Trades such as gunsmithing, cabinetmaking, baking, and bookbinding also employed black tradesmen.

Were women apprenticed?

Four females are named in the 110 York County, Virginia, apprenticeships recorded from 1747 to 1789. Earlier York County records contain several others. Generally, these apprenticeships were for household work or textile trades (spinning, weaving, or knitting).

What kind of work did an apprentice do?

In order to learn a trade, an apprentice eventually had to do all the skilled work of the trade, but he might have spent a lot of time working as a semi-skilled laborer in the first years of his apprenticeship. Very little is known about this subject.

What hours did he work?

Apprentices worked alongside their master and any journeymen in the shop. There is no evidence that the apprentice's hours would have been different from the other workers. Work hours in most trades varied both seasonally and with the length of the day and could range from as few as eight hours per day in winter to as many as sixteen hours per day in summer.

Where did he sleep?

Some contracts allowed the apprentice to live at his own home. Other contracts required the master to provide room and board, in which case the apprentice lived in the master's house, although exact sleeping arrangements are not known.

A journeyman was an individual who had completed an apprenticeship and worked for day wagesHow did he dress?

The evidence shows that apprentices dressed no differently from anyone else.

What is a journeyman?

A journeyman is an individual who has completed an apprenticeship and works for wages. The term comes from the French for “day man.”


Where can I find out more about apprenticeship?

Myth-conceptions about apprentices

“Apprentices had to work seven years to learn their trades.” It is awfully easy to over-generalize. In colonial Virginia, the length of an apprenticeship was a mutually agreed upon period of time, not always seven years. Many young persons served only four-year apprenticeships. On the other hand, several indentures recorded in York County, Virginia, stated that the terms were to last until the apprentice reached the age of twenty-one, regardless of the age at which the youth began. Having served that time, the apprentice, no matter what his skill level was, was free of his indenture. He could then work for wages as a journeyman, or, if he could afford the costs of setting up his own shop, he could be a master.

This Q & A is adapted from an article written by Gary Brumfield, Manager of Historic Area Communications, and Harold Gill, historian, retired from the Department of Historical Research, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The article first appeared in the July 1981 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter.