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Apprenticeship in the United States

Daniel Jacoby, University of Washington, Bothell

Once the principal means by which craft workers learned their trades, apprenticeship plays a relatively small part in American life today. The essence of this institution has always involved an exchange of labor for training, yet apprenticeship has been far from constant over time as its survival in the United States has required nearly continual adaptation to new challenges.

Four distinct challenges define the periods of major apprenticeship changes. The colonial period required the adaptation of Old World practices to New World contexts. In the era of the new republic, apprenticeship was challenged by the clash between traditional authority and the logic of expanding markets and contracts. The main concern after the Civil War was to find a training contract that could resolve the heightening tensions between organized labor and capital. Finally, in the modern era following World War I, industrialization’s skill-leveling effects constituted a challenge to apprenticeship against which it largely failed. Apprenticeship lost ground as schooling was instead increasingly sought as the vehicle for upward social mobility that offset the leveling effects of industrialization. After reviewing these episodes this essay concludes by speculating whether we are now in a new era of challenges that will reshape apprenticeship.

Apprenticeship came to American soil by way of England, where it was the first step on the road to economic independence. In England, master craftsmen hired apprentices in an exchange of training for service. Once their term of apprenticeship was completed, former apprentices traveled from employer to employer earning wages as journeymen. When, or if, they accumulated enough capital, journeymen set up shop as independent masters and became members of their craft guilds. These institutions had the power to bestow and withdraw rights and privileges upon their members, and thereby to regulate competition among themselves.

One major concern of the guilds was to prevent unrestricted trade entry and thus apprenticeship became the object of much regulation. Epstein (1998), however, argues that monopoly or rent-seeking activity (the deliberate production of scarcity) was only incidental to the guilds’ primary interest in supplying skilled workmen. To the extent that guilds successfully regulated apprenticeship in Britain, that pattern was less readily replicated in the Americas whose colonists came to exploit the bounty of natural resources under mercantilistic proscriptions that forbade most forms of manufacturing. The result was an agrarian society practically devoid of large towns and guilds. Absent these entities, the regulation of apprenticeship relied upon government actions that appear to have been become more pronounced towards the mid-eighteenth century. The passage of Britain’s 1563 Statute of Artificers involved government regulation in the Old World as well. However, as Davies (1956) shows, English apprenticeship was different in that craft guilds and their attendant traditions were more significant.

The Colonial Period

During the colonial period, the U.S was predominantly an agrarian society. As late as 1790 no city possessed a population in excess of 50,000. In 1740, the largest colonial city, Philadelphia, possessed 13,000 inhabitants. Even so, the colonies could not operate successfully without some skilled tradesmen in fields like carpentry, cordwaining (shoemaking), and coopering (barrel making). Neither the training of slaves, nor the immigration of skilled European workmen was sufficient to prevent labor short colonies from developing their own apprenticeship systems. No uniform system of apprenticeship developed because municipalities, and even states, lacked the authority either to enforce their rules outside their own jurisdictions or to restore distant runaways to their masters. Accordingly, apprenticeship remained a local institution.

Records from the colonial period are sparse, but both Philadelphia and Boston have preserved important evidence. In Philadelphia, Quimby (1963) traced official apprenticeship back, at least, to 1716. By 1745 the city had recorded 149 indentures in 33 crafts. The stock of apprentices grew more rapidly than did population and after an additional 25 years it had reached 537.

Quimby’s Colonial Philadelphia data indicate that apprenticeship typically consigned boys, aged 14 to 17, to serve their masters until their twenty-first birthdays. Girls, too, were apprenticed, but females comprised less than one-fifth of recorded indentures, most of whom were apprenticed to learn housewifery. One significant variation on the standard indenture involved the binding of parish orphans. Such paupers were usually indented to less remunerative trades, usually farming. Yet another variation involved the coveted apprenticeships with merchants, lawyers, and other professions. In these instances, parents usually paid masters beforehand to take their children.

Apprenticeship’s distinguishing feature was its contract of indenture, which elaborated the terms of the arrangement. This contract differed in two major ways from the contracts of indenture that bound immigrants. First, the apprenticeship contract involved young people and, as such, required the signature of their parents or guardians. Second, indentured servitude, which Galenson (1981) argues was adapted from apprenticeship, substituted Atlantic transportation for trade instruction in the exchange of a servant’s labor. Both forms of labor involved some degree of mutuality or voluntary agreement. In apprenticeship, however, legal or natural parents transferred legal authority over their child to another, the apprentice’s master, for a substantial portion of his or her youth. In exchange for rights to their child’s labor, parents were also relieved of direct responsibility for child rearing and occupational training. Thus the child’s consent could be of less consequence than that of the parents.

The articles of indenture typically required apprentices to serve their terms faithfully and obediently. Indentures commonly included clauses prohibiting specific behaviors, such a playing dice or fornication. Masters generally pledged themselves to raise, feed, lodge, educate, and train apprentices and then to provide “freedom dues” consisting of clothes, tools, or money once they completed the terms of their indentures. Parents or guardian were co-signatories of the agreements. Although practice in the American colonies is incompletely documented, we know that in Canada parents were held financially responsible to apprentice masters when their children ran away.

To enforce their contracts parties to the agreement could appeal to local magistrates. Problems arose for many reasons, but the long duration of the contract inevitably involved unforeseen contingencies giving rise to dissatisfactions with the arrangements. Unlike other simple exchanges of goods, the complications of child rearing inevitably made apprenticeship a messy concern.

The Early Republic

William Rorabaugh (1986) argues that the revolutionary era increased the complications inherent in apprenticeship. The rhetoric of independence could not be contained within the formal political realm involving relations between nations, but instead involved the interpersonal realms wherein the independence to govern one’s self challenged traditions of deference based upon social status. Freedom was increasingly equated with contractual relations and consent. However, exchange based on contract undermined the authority of masters. And so it was with servants and apprentices who, empowered by Republican ideology, began to challenge their masters conceiving themselves, not as willful children, but as free and independent citizens of the Revolution.

The revolutionary logic of contract ate away at the edges of the long-term apprenticeship relationship and such indentures became substantially less common in the first half of the nineteenth century. Gillian Hamilton (2000) has tested whether the decline in apprenticeship stemmed from problems in enforcing long-term contracts, or whether it was the result of a shift by employers to hire unskilled workers for factory work. While neither theory alone explains the decline in the stock of apprenticeship contracts, both demonstrate how emerging contractual relations undermined tradition by providing new choices. During this period she finds that masters began to pay their apprentices, that over time those payments rose more steeply with experience, and that indenture contracts were shortened, all of which suggest employers consciously patterned contracts to reduce the turnover that resulted when apprentices left for preferable situations. That employers increasingly preferred to be freed from the long-term obligations they owed their apprentices suggests that these responsibilities in loco parentis imposed burdens upon masters as well as apprentices. The payment of money wages reflected, in part, costs associated with their parental authorities that could now, more easily, be avoided in urban areas by shifting responsibilities back to youths and their parents.

Hamilton’s evidence comes from Montreal, where indentures were centrally recorded. While Canadian experiences differed in several identifiable ways from those in the United States, the broader trends she describes are consistent with those observed in the United States. In Frederick County Maryland, for example, Rorabaugh (1986) finds that the percentage of white males formally bound as apprentices fell from nearly 20% of boys aged 15 to 20 to less than 1% between 1800 and 1860. The U.S decline however, is more difficult to gage because informal apprenticeship arrangements that were not officially recorded appear to have risen. In key respects issues pertaining to the master’s authority remained an unresolved complication preventing a uniform apprenticeship system and encouraging informal apprenticeship arrangements into the period well after slavery was abolished.

Postbellum Period

While the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 formally ended involuntary servitude, the boundary line between involuntary and voluntary contracts remained problematic, especially in regards to apprenticeship. Although courts explained that labor contracts enforced under penalty of imprisonment generally created involuntary servitude, employers explored contract terms that gave them unusual authority over their apprentices. States sometimes developed statutes to protect minors by prescribing the terms of legally enforceable apprenticeship indentures. Yet, doing so necessarily limited freedom of contract: making it difficult, if not impossible, to rearrange the terms of an apprenticeship agreement to fit any particular situation. Both the age of the apprentice and the length of the indenture agreement made the arrangement vulnerable to abuse. However, it proved extremely difficult for lawmakers to specify the precise circumstances warranting statutory indentures without making them unattractive. In good measure this was because representatives of labor and capital seldom agreed when it came to public policy regarding skilled employment. Yet, the need for some policy increased, especially after the labor scarcities created by the Civil War.

Companies, unions and governments all sought solutions to the shortages of skills caused by the Civil War. In Boston and Chicago, for example, women were recruited to perform skilled typography work that had previously been restricted to men. The Connecticut legislature authorized a new company to recruit and contract skilled workers from abroad. Other states either wrote new apprenticeship laws or experimented with new ways of training workers. The success of craft unionism was itself an indication of the dearth of organizations capable of implementing skill standards. Virtually any new action challenged the authority of either labor or capital, leading one or the other to contest them. Jacoby (1996) argues that the most important new strategy involved the introduction of short trade school courses intended to substitute for apprenticeship. Schooling fed employers’ hope that they might sidestep organized labor’s influence in determining the supply of skilled labor.

Independent of the expansion of schooling, issues pertaining to apprenticeship contract rights gained in importance. Firms like Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive held back wages until contract completion in order to keep their apprentices with them. The closer young apprentices were bound to their employers, the less viable became organized labor’s demand to consult over or to unilaterally control the expansion or contraction of training. One-sided long-term apprenticeship contracts provided employers other advantages as well. Once under contract, competitors and unions could be legally enjoined for “enticing” their workers into breaking their contracts. Although employers rarely brought suit against each other for enticement of their apprentices, their associations, like the Metal Manufactures Association in Philadelphia, prevented apprentices from leaving one master for another by requiring consent and recommendation of member employers (Howell, 2000). Employer associations could, in this way, effectively blacklist union supporters and require apprentices to break strikes.

These employer actions did not occur in a vacuum. Many businessmen faulted labor for tying their hands when responding to increased demands for labor. Unions lost support among the working class when they restricted the number of apprentices an employer could hire. Such restrictions frequently involved ethnic, racial and gender preferences that locked minorities out of the well-paid crafts. Organized labor’s control was, nonetheless, less effective than it would have liked: It could not restrict non-union firms from taking on apprentices nor was it able to stem the flow of half-trained craftsmen from the small towns where apprenticeship standards were weak. Yet by fines, boycotts, and walkouts organized labor did intimidate workers and firms who disregarded their rules. Such actions failed to endear it to less skilled workers, who often regarded skilled unionists as a conservative aristocracy only slightly less onerous, if at all, than big business.

This weakness in labor’s support made it vulnerable to Colonel Richard T Auchmuty’s New York Trade School. Auchmuty’s school, begun in 1881, became the leading institution challenging labor’s control over its own supply. The school was designed and marketed as an alternative to apprenticeship and Auchmuty encouraged its use as a weapon in “the battle for the boys” waged by New York City Plumbers in 1886-87. Those years mark the starting point for a series of skirmishes between organized capital and labor in which momentum seesawed back and forth. Those battles encouraged public officials and educators to get involved. Where the public sector took greater interest in training, schooling more frequently supplemented, rather than replaced, on-the-job apprenticeship training. Public involvement also helped formalized the structure of trade learning in ways that apprenticeship laws had failed to do.

The Modern Era

In 1917, with the benefit of prior collaborations involving the public sector, a coalition of labor, business and social services secured passage of the Smith-Hughes Law to provide federal aid for vocational education. Despite this broad support, it is not clear that the bill would have passed had it not been for America’s entry into the First World War and the attendant priority for an increase in the supply of skilled labor. Prior to this law, demands for skilled labor had been partially muted by new mass production technologies and scientific management, both of which reduced industry’s reliance upon craft workers. War changed the equation.

Not only did war spur the Wilson administration into training more workers, it also raised organized labor’s visibility in industries, like shipbuilding, where it had previously been locked out. Under Smith-Hughes, cities as distant as Seattle and New York invited unions to join formal training partnerships. In the twenties, a number of schools systems provided apprentice extension classes where prior employment was made prerequisite, thereby limiting public apprenticeship support to workers who were already unionized. These arrangements made it easier for organized labor to control entry into the craft. This was most true in the building trades, where the unions remained well-organized throughout the twenties. However, in the twenties, the fast expanding factory sector more successfully reduced union influence. The largest firms, such as the General Electric Company, had long since set up their own non-union–usually informal–apprenticeship plans. Large firms able to provide significant employment security, like those that belonged to the National Association for Corporation Schools, typically operated in a union-free environment, which enabled them to establish training arrangements that were flexible and responsive to their needs.

The depression in the early thirties stopped nearly all training. Moreover, the prior industrial transformation shifted power within organized labor from the American Federation of Labor’s bedrock craft unions to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. With this change labor increasingly emphasized pay equality by narrowing skill differentials and accordingly de-emphasized training issues. Even so, by the late 1930s shortages of skilled workers were again felt that led to a national apprenticeship plan. Under the Fitzgerald Act (1937), apprenticeship standards were formalized in indentures that specified the kinds and quantity of training to be provided, as well as the responsibilities of joint labor-management apprenticeship committees. Standards helped minimize incentives to abuse low-wage apprentices through inadequate training and advancement. Nationally, however, the percentage of apprentices nationally remained very small, and overall young people increasingly chose formal education rather than apprenticeship to open opportunity. While the Fitzgerald Law worked to protect labor’s immediate interests, very few firms chose formal apprenticeships when less structured training relationships were possible.

This system persisted through the heyday of organized labor in the forties and fifties, but began to come undone in the late sixties and seventies, particularly when Civil Rights groups attacked the racial and gender discrimination too often used to ration scarce apprenticeship opportunities. Discrimination was sometimes passive, occurring as the result of preferential treatment extended to the sons and friends of craft workers, while in other instances it involved active and deliberate policies aimed at exclusion (Hill, 1968). Affirmative action accords and court orders have forced unions and firms to provide more apprenticeship opportunities for minorities.

Along with a declining influence of labor and civil rights organizations, work relations appear to have changed as we begin the new millennium. Forms of labor contracting that provide fewer benefits and security are on the rise. Incomes once again have become more stratified by education and skill levels, making them a much more important issue. Gary Becker’s (1964) work on human capital theory has encouraged businessmen and educators to rethink the economics of training and apprenticeship. Conceptualizing training as an investment, theory suggests that enforceable long-term apprenticeships enable employers to increase their investments in the skills of their workers. Binding indentures are rationalized as efficient devices to prevent youths from absconding with the capital employers have invested in them. Armed with this understanding, increasingly policy makers have permitted and encouraged arrangements that look more like older-style employer dominated apprenticeships. Whether this is the beginning of new era for apprenticeship, or merely a return to the prior battles over the abuses of one-sided employer control, only time will tell.

References and further reading:

Becker, Gary. Human Capital. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Davies, Margaret. The Enforcement of English Apprenticeship, 1563-1642. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Douglas, Paul. American Apprenticeship and Industrial Education. New York: Columbia University Press, 1921.

Elbaum, Bernard. “Why Apprenticeship Persisted in Britain but Not in the United States.” Journal of Economic History 49 (1989): 337-49.

Epstein, S. R. “Craft Guilds, Apprenticeship and Technological Change in Pre-industrial Europe.” Journal of Economic History 58, no. 3 (1998): 684-713.

Galenson, David. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Hamilton, Gillian. “The Decline of Apprenticeship in North America: Evidence from Montreal.” Journal of Economic History 60, no. 3, (2000): 627-664.

Harris, Howell John. Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Decline of the Open Shop Movement in Philadelphia; 1890-1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hill, Herbert. “The Racial Practices of Organized Labor: The Contemporary Record.” In The Negro and The American Labor Movement, edited by Julius Jacobson. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Press, 1968.

Jacoby, Daniel. “The Transformation of Industrial Apprenticeship in the United States.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 4 (1991): 887- 910.

Jacoby, Daniel. “Plumbing the Origins of American Vocationalism.” Labor History 37, no. 2 (1996): 235-272.

Licht, Walter. Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Quimby, Ian M.G. “Apprenticeship in Colonial Philadelphia.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Delaware, 1963.

Rorabaugh, William. The Craft Apprentice from Franklin to the Machine Age in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Citation: Cuff, Timothy. “Historical Anthropometrics”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 29, 2004. URL