Colonial Williamsburg Apprenticeships

April 22, 2013
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Guest Author


During the Colonial Williamsburg Fall Homeschooler Event, students will have an opportunity to participate in an abbreviated apprenticeship program with a master craftsman such as a Silversmith or possibly as Weaver. What is an apprenticeship? In Colonial America, instead of the traditional path of higher education, students entered into an apprenticeship; an opportunity to learn a craft by working directly with an expert. The apprenticeship was a legal contract between the apprentice (the student) 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 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. It was not uncommon for a master to charge parents an apprenticeship fee, and even orphans sometimes had to pay. 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.

African Americans and women worked as apprentices as well.  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. Four females are named in the local, Virginia apprenticeships recorded from 1747 to 1789. Earlier records contain several others. Generally, these apprenticeships were for household work or textile trades (spinning, weaving, or knitting).

Sign your student up for the Apprentice Program this fall to work with an official Colonial Williamsburg tradesperson. Visit or call 1-800-280-8039 for more information as it becomes available.