Apprentice Female Tinsmith? Detail Ferblantier (Tin Plate Maker) Encycopedia of Diederot & d'Alembert 1765
Though there was no system of standards governing 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. Some scholars estimate that colonial British American young women comprised less than 1/5 of recorded indentures. Generally, girls were bound out for household work or textile trades (spinning, weaving, or knitting). Orphan apprenticeship contracts from the period sometimes record more detail than a standard agreement, although many of the girls' apprenticed trades are listed as "unspecified," & the only way to guess what they learned is if the master's or mistress's business is known. Colonial British American apprenticeship was a system of on-the-job training which was based on both ancient & medieval practices. The basis of colonial laws of apprenticeship were the English 1562 Statute of Artificers and the English 1601 Poor Law, which standardized customs long recognized & enforced by the guilds and local authorities.
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.
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 boys & 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, 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," often described as a quantity of corn & clothing. The 1705 Virginia statute "An Act concerning Servants & Slaves" was the 1st colonial legislation 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 across the Atlantic 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. The 2nd type covered 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.
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.
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.
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.
Dorothy Pentreath of Mousehole, Cornwall. Wellcome Library
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, who also claimed the rights of masters.