Apprentice Female Tinsmith? Detail Ferblantier (Tin Plate Maker) Encycopedia of Diederot & d'Alembert 1765
Though there was no system of standards governing the trades in the British American colonies, the method of learning a trade generally followed the apprenticeship guidelines established by the guilds in medieval England & Europe.
It was unusual or sometimes even shocking to come upon women doing tasks normally done by men. Traveling through the English countryside in 1741, William Hutton happened upon a blacksmith's shop, where he saw "one or more females, stripped of their upper garments, & not overcharged with the lower, wielding the hammer with all the grace of the sex." Women were not excluded from membership in the earlier guilds. The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in London lists 65 "brethren" & 2 "sistren" in its 1434 charter. "No one contested the right of wives & daughters to work in a shop or at a stall leased in the name of the husband & father," writes Olwen Hufton in The Prospect before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, 1500-1800. "The tendency of a master in an occupation where there was scope for the employment of his daughter—particularly if he had no sons—may have been to familiarize her with the techniques of the trade. At the humblest levels, where the master in question did not employ journeymen & where any apprentices kept quiet, then the master's daughter unofficially may have done much work without incurring opposition from the guild." Male or female, a prospective guild member had to apply for entrance by apprenticeship, patrimony, redemption, or marriage. Most women applied by right of marriage, or widowhood. More than 200 youngsters are documented to have been apprenticed to women in Oxford between 1520 & 1800, evidence that women claimed the rights of masters. Conspicuous differences existed in the strength & types of guilds to enforce their control, so a female's success or participation in a business could vary from place to place, from year to year. "Complaints were more common in periods of economic strain," Hufton wrote, "particularly when the labour supply was overabundant & rising prices outstripped wages. In easy times, journeymen were less anxious & might permit without complaint some infiltration by women into what they saw as their sphere of activity." Girls were apprenticed, too, usually in cases of orphaning. Parish or pauper apprenticeships, as they were called, featured contracts that left blank spaces so the court or church official could write in "him" or "her," "she" or "he." K. D. M. Snell's Annals of the Labouring Poor lists nearly 300 orphan girls apprenticed to trades in the 18C in the southern counties of England. But the guild system began to decline during the 18C, & with it went the detailed records. A 1770 publication called The Tradesman's True Guide or a Universal Directory for the Towns of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsal, Dudley & the manufacturing village in the neighborhood of Birmingham carries exhaustive lists of tradesmen & -women alphabetically by name & by trade. There are women listed in every trade from butcher to wire drawer. Records of guilds & corporations frequently omit mention of female apprentices suggests Bridget Hill in Women, Work, & Sexual Politics in Eighteenth-Century England, because "the completion of a man's apprenticeship had political & social, as well as economic consequences (parliamentary franchise) that did not apply to women."
In 18C colonial British America & the New Republic the distinction between indentures for servants & apprentices was less clear. Binding out or apprenticing became a catch-all concept that both provided a controllable & skilled labor force to the new country & provided parent/authority figures to children who had no parents. In the 17C & early 18C, scholars project that 80% of the Chesapeake’s immigrants were indentured servants from Britain & Europe. Some authorities state that more than 75% of all immigrants who settled south of New England were indentured servants, convict servants, or redemptioners. Most of these servants were over the age of 20, but a significant number were young men & girls still in their teens. Historian John C. Coombs suggests that by the 1670s, slaves had begun to replace white indentured servants among the Chesapeake gentry before both Bacon's Rebellion & the sharp decline in new servants. By 1690, enslaved Africans & African Americans account for nearly all of the Virginia gentry's bound workforce. Slaves account for only 25-40% of the non-elites' workforce.
In return for their passage to the Chesapeake, these young servants agreed to work on the land, in trades, or do household chores, for a period of time, usually between 4-7 years, without pay. During their service, masters provided food, clothing & shelter. Servants whose contracts had expired typically received "freedom dues," loosely described as a quantity of corn & clothing. The 1705 Virginia statute "An Act concerning Servants & Slaves" was the 1st to explicitly mention this "good & laudable custom," & required that male servants, "upon their freedom," be supplied with 10 bushels of corn, 30 shillings (or the like value in goods), & a musket worth at least 20 shillings. Women were entitled to 15 bushels of corn & the equivalent of 40 shillings. Many of these youths from across the Atlantic were orphans, some were kidnapped onto ships sailing for the New World, and some were from indigent families who could not care for their children, & therefore sent them off to make their own way.
Colonial courts dealt with a broad variety of indentures, roughly divided into 2 categories: (1) voluntary apprenticeships, where a parent entered a voluntary arrangement with a 3rd party, usually to train the child in a specific trade in exchange for the child's services & some parents even paid the master for training the child; & (2) involuntary apprenticeships, where the parents were dead or unable to properly raise their children & court officials placed them with a master. Many children in the colonial era did not spend their whole childhood under the custody & control of their own parents or step-parents. These children were put under the custody & control of masters (& sometimes mistresses), to whom they were indentured. "Binding out, putting out, & apprenticing" were all variations on the well-established English custom of placing children in the home of a master who was obliged to provide ordinary sustenance & some training in return for services. This training could be as specific as teaching a skilled craft, or it could be as general as instruction in basic reading & the catechism. Laws differed by colony pertaining to articles of indenture for servants & for apprentices.
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 Virginia 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.
Female colonial apprentices often worked in the shops of dressmakers & sometimes with tailors. Some of these apprenticeships were based on formal contracts between the child’s parents & the artisan with the aim of teaching the child a skill she could use one day to earn money. Many formal apprenticeships for girls tended to be short - often just one year. Sometimes, though, they could be very long for poor & orphaned girls, some very young. In 1715 Northumberland County, Virginia, Ariskam Crowder was "hereby bound an apprentice to serve Mary Knight in all lawfull Services & imploym until he shall attain the age of One & twenty years, he being Seven years old." One 1770 New England document records an apprenticeship binding 7-year-old Rebeccah Baxter to male tailor Elijah Treadway in Middletown, Connecticut. According to the terms of the document, she was to stay in Treadway’s household for 11 years, until she turned 18.
Four females are named in 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.
At least one woman in Pennsylvania owned a traditionaly male business. She was a brass founder. A 1730 Pennsylvania Gazette ad was placed searching for one James Curry, "an Apprentice to Mrs. Paris of Philadelphia, Brass Founder." The Pennsylvania Gazette printed the rules of contracting apprentices to "the Masters or Mistresses" in 1763, such that the youngster "shall be bound by Indenture to serve as an Apprentice in any Art, Mystery, Occupation or Labour, with the Assent of his or her Parent."
In 1762, the law dealing with orphans as apprentices in North Carolina stated: Where the estate of an orphan shall be of so small value that no person will educate & maintain him or her for the profits thereof, such orphan shall, by direction of the court, be bound apprentice, every male to some tradesman, merchant, mariner or other person approved by the court, until he shall attain to the age of 21 years, & every female to some suitable employment, till her age of 18 years; & also such court may, in like manner, bind apprentice all free base-born (illegitimate) children, & every such female child, being a mulatto (mixed parents-Black & White)or mustee (mixed parents-Indian & White), until she shall attain the age of 21 years: And the master or mistress of every such apprentice shall find & provide for him or her diet, clothes, lodging & accommodations, fit & necessary; & shall teach, or cause him or her to be taught to read & write; & at the expiration of his or her apprenticeship, shall pay every such apprentice the like allowance as is by law appointed for servants by indenture or custom, & on refusal shall be compelled thereto in like manner; & if upon complaint made to the inferior court of pleas & quarter sessions, it shall appear that any such apprentice is ill used, or not taught the trade, profession or employment to which he or she was bound, it shall be lawful for such court to remove & bind him or her to such other person or persons as they shall think fit.
Records from Boston show that in 1769, Ann Cromartie, age 13, was bound to Ruth DeCosta by the Overseers of the Poor to learn the “Art, Trade or Mystery of a Mantuamaker.” Her term was about 5 years, again until she turned 18.
Many Virginia apprenticeship contracts (indentures) were private arrangements between a master & an apprentice's parents & were not recorded in the public records. Apprenticeships ordered by the courts for orphans & poor children were recorded, but their lengths varied widely or were often stated only as to age 21. Of the 110 apprenticeships recorded in York County, Virginia, from 1745 until 1789, 34 were “until 21,” and 64 were from 4 to 7 years.
Records from a Massachusetts lawsuit in 1791, tell of 24-year-old Clarinda Colton’s contract with male tailor Ithamar Burt. She was supposed to get one year of training. But her parents alleged in the suit that when Clarinda returned home after one year, she knew almost nothing about cutting cloth. Clarinda had apparently been assigned mainly to do household chores.