Charles Quill on Apprenticeship

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

The relationship between master and apprentice was changing rapidly in early nineteenth−century New England. In most areas of the economy factories and larger−scale shops were replacing the small shops that had set the pattern of labor in early America. The old system required lengthy apprenticeships to teach the entire range of crafts skills and provided an extended period of residence in the master’s family. Masters were surrogate fathers as well as employers. In the new system, many work tasks were divided so that they could be learned far more quickly, ensuring that lengthy training periods were not required. As the scale of the work force increased, employers gave up their paternal roles, and employees began to live away from masters’ households in ever larger numbers. In most trades, the traditional assumption that a young man would progress from apprentice to journeyman to master, with the promise of eventual personal and financial independence, was breaking down. However, this transition did not take place all at once. Old and new versions of employer−employee relations coexisted in New England for decades, as we can see in the very contrasting situations described in Perley Torrey’s letter and Edward Jenner Carpenter’s diary.

James Alexander, writing as Charles Quill, spoke for many who lamented this change and feared that it would create new generations of poorly trained workers and undisciplined, even immoral young men.

Transcription of Primary Source

The relation of master* and apprentice* was a closer and a warmer one in former days. The lad was willing to allow that he had a master, for a certain time and a certain purpose, and in expectation of being one day a master himself. He thought this was no more disgraceful, than the subordination of the scholar to his teacher, or the soldier to his captain. And, in return, the employer felt a responsibility proportioned to his authority. Good men were accustomed to treat their apprentices as their sons; they gave them many little instructions out of the line of the trade, and had an eye to their religious duties. It is unnecessary to say, that the state of things is very much altered. Insubordination, radicalism, and a false and impracticable theory of equal rights, have destroyed the gentle authority which used to exist. The whole affair of indentures *, as my readers very well know, is in some places becoming a mere formality. It is less common than it used to be for boys to serve out their whole time. Many influences are at work to make lads impatient, and loath to continue in one place, however good…There are many shops in which there are no regular apprentices; the employers choosing rather to hire such labour as they can get. I have even heard the opinion expressed that the day is not far off when the whole system of apprenticeship will be thrown aside.

The spirit of our age and country is a spirit of restless hurry. We are for quick turns, short cuts and sudden results. Amidst the increased risks of human life, seven years is a great portion of the human span. Another trait of our national character is a dislike to all rule, just or unjust. It is natural for a boy to prefer variety to sameness of occupation; and when regular service is no longer compulsory, we must expect to see our youth flying from the severe work of shops to those chance jobs which give bread to so many thousands in our streets.

The effects of this condition of things are manifestly bad. We are falling between two systems. We are slipping away from the old plan of former ages, and have not yet alighted upon a better—one more suited to modern improvements. If boys and youth may serve one year or six years at their own option, if they may run from one employer to another, upon every whim; if they may even exchange their trade two or three times before they come of age,—is it not as plain as day, that the proportion of really accomplished workmen must lessen from year to year?…

But there are moral consequences of this relaxation of the old system, which are still more to be deplored…We often talk of the advantages of domestic influences, the bond of the fireside, the charm of home: and on this point it would be hard for us to speak too much, or too enthusiastically. But where is the apprentice’s home? It is not in his father’s house: in the greater number of cases, this is not within reach. It is not his employer’s house; at least under the prevailing system, and in our cities and large towns. For this there are various reasons. In great manufactories, where there are at least a dozen boys—these of course cannot be allowed to overrun the employer’s house: they are often put out to board* elsewhere. In neither case have they a home.— Even where there is only an ordinary number, as the master is no longer a parent, the apprentice feels no longer like a son. Where can he spend his evenings?…Let us look the truth in the face: The apprentice has no home. Is it any wonder that at night we hear the heavy tramp of their feet upon our pavements as they career* along by scores? Is it any wonder that they crowd our oyster−houses, porter−cellars, barrooms, shows, and wait for checks about the doors of our theatres?

…If we do not wish our young mechanics to become an easy prey to vice, we must set about some preventive measures. The apprentice must have some agreeable place in which to spend his leisure moments…no man could bestow a greater benefit on our working−classes, than he who should devise and offer to apprentices a pleasing, popular, and ever−open resort for their leisure hours, where they might not only feel at home, but be out of the reach of temptation, and in the way of mental improvement…there is no good reason why every town in America should not be adorned by a graceful edifice devoted to the mental improvement of the young artisan.


  • apprentice − someone who is bound by a contract or promise to serve a master craftsman for a certain time in order to learn his art or occupation. The master is responsible for teaching the apprentice. Apprentices were regularly bound by indentures.
  • board − meals and a place to sleep. It was usual in the early 19th century to provide “board” for schoolteachers, apprentices and other workers.
  • career − move or run rapidly
  • indentures − a contract obliging one person to work for another
  • master − a man who commands or directs. In the early 19th century, a male teacher was often referred to as the “master” or “school master.” When applied to a craftsman in the early 19th century, “master” meant a man who had a high level of skill and expertise, as well as the authority to direct other workers.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
The Working-Man
114−117, 119
Edited by Old Sturbridge Village.
Alexander, James W. (Charles Quill, pseud.)
Perkins Purves
Place of Publication: 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Old Sturbridge Village