home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

“I Was Sure of Getting a Trade”: John Fitch’s Long Journey Towards Becoming an Artisan

In colonial America, apprenticeship was the usual means by which young men entered a trade and master craftsmen obtained the labor necessary to staff their workshops. A young man’s guardian signed an indenture (contract) for a period of time and the apprentice in turn was to receive food, lodging, and knowledge of “the mysteries of the trade,” or traditional craft practices. For young John Fitch of Connecticut in the 1760s, anxious “to learn a trade” and “subsist myself in a genteel way when I came for myself,” that exchange was no simple matter. The Cheney brothers, Connecticut clockmakers who were innovated in making moving wooden clocks that were far cheaper than the usual brass ones, were not eager to share either their dinner or their knowledge of clockmaking with Fitch. He found himself caught between his father’s and his master’s patriarchal expectations of receiving his labor, while he had to worry about how he would support himself when he came of age.

I went on board of Capt. Abbots sloop but he had a mate the name of Starr and when I came to lay myself down at night altho there were empty berths and I went without either bed or blanket he refused me one and I was obliged to lay on a chest [20} which was much too short for me without any covering. Which was extremely hard for me as being used to a comfortable bed at home.

The next day he began to treat me in the language as is common for sea captains to do their hands at sea and [I] found no amendment in my berth at night. The day following I went to one Capt. James Ebins of Providence and instead of going to New York went to Rhode Island who treated me very well during the voyage and nothing material happened excepting a very severe storm on Providence River going from Newport to Providence. I was gone from home about five weeks and made a saving voyage as Capt. Ebens allowed me wages the whole time I was in Rhode Island altho he was not obliged to do it according to contract. And I came home mole rich than I 'went. Not being resolved against the sea nor much enamored with it I came home being as much at a loss how to dispose of myself as ever.

Some few days after my return my father sent me to mill with a horse load of grain. When at the meeting of two roades I met and fell in with one Benjamin Cheany [Cheney] and his I wife who told me that they wanted just such a boy as I was as an apprentice to learn the clockmakeing business. I was pleased at the idea, as it was a trade I wished lo learn and promised to call and see him in a few days to make a bargain with him. Our acquaintance and discourse all happened while we rode about 40 or 50 poles together when our roades parted.

A few days after I called to see him and soon perceived that instead of wanting me to learn a trade he wanted me to work his place. But being anxious to learn the trade rather than to miss it I told him I should have no objections to work out some little time but that time must be ascertained in the indentures. But from a month or six weeks or two months as he first mentioned [,] in order to make it safe on his side and that he could let me work at the trade double the time as he was obliged to he would fix it at five months in a year that I should work out. It alarmed me considerably but being too conceited that I could learn a trade in a short time if I had only the first principles of it and an expectation that my master would not call me off half that time from my trade I agreed to his proposal and went for five or six weeks on trial. And my indentures was executed about the time I was eighteen years of age [1762] with this article in them that he should keep me at the trade seven months in a year. But the difficulties I had to get over in order to go were great. He would not take me unless I found my own clothing. But as I have already informed you that my mother was a good orderly woman and one that looked much to my fathers interest and probably in a great measure to please him she thought it very hard for my father to part with me when he had raised me just big enough to be able to earn him something and not only that [but] to find me in clothes into the bargain was too much and if I must learn a trade I should go to one that should find me in clothes. For her part she would do nothing toward procuring them. To which my father fully assented. And [I] partly gave over the hopes of getting a trade. Whether they had agreed upon that mode to keep me at home or not I do not know. But it did not altogether discourage me from trying a little further.

My oldest sister Sarah was married to one Timothy King a poor industrious man of Windsor to which my father had great objections to the match on account of his being poor or I am rather inclined to believe as she was but little turned of sixteen the true objection was that he should lose near two years of her services. And what strengthens my opinion in this was [that] Timothy King was a weaver and that I frequently heard my father and mother say that ht ought (o do their weaving for him for nothing till she was eighteen years of age. It is true that was an honest way of dealing according to law but somewhat uncommon in parents to request such favours from people they object to on account of poverty. To tell you the truth Sir it was just like my father and what I believe [is that] my brother Joseph gave countenance to it if I am not mistaken in my memory. But notwithstanding my fathers objections to the marriage he gave my sister household furniture so that they might make shift to keep house tolerably comfortable. But they had both of them spirit enough to treat his meannesses with a becoming dignity and proper decency to a parent. And he [the] poor man had his weaving to pay for.

Sir these two persons was the greatest ornament that ever adorned my fathers family. My sister was I think the most manly generous spirited woman I ever saw not only to me but also the others. And probably might take it in some measure from her husband as good wives endeavor to recommend themselves to their husbands by adopting their sentiments.

I at this time being near eighteen years of age had some spirit of my own and some pride. I told my parents that a trade I would have and would not be beholden to them for it. I went immediately to my brother in law and sister who had at that time got into pretty easy circumstances and told them my situation. Who never waited to have me ask them the favour but my brother said John go and learn a traid [sic]. I will find you in clothes and pay me when you can. This difficulty of my clothing being got over my father started another one which was that he must have me three weeks in harvest time. Which had like to have broke off the bargain. I obstinately persisted that I would work at the trade seven months in a year. But finally my master complied and I soon got the indentures executed. My master was a pretty good sort of man but possessed with a great many oddities and considerably deformed with the rickets in his youth especially his head which was near double the size of common proportion. And [he] was a man of some considerable genius. He married one Deborah Akoll in the same parish. His being married at all was perhaps the greatest wonder which ever happened in the neighborhood and the means of his getting married perhaps [was] as much mirth as it was always noticed of him that lie never would be in a room with [a] woman till he was fairly trapped into it. Which happened when he was about forty years of age.

This Deborer was a hansom young forward foolish girl and one night after being at the house for near a week attempted to frighten him out of his bedroom and went to bed before him in his bed. But whatever might be the stimulus his resolutions at that time was most certainly more than common and [he] would not be drove out of his bed by a woman. And at that lime or some other, they jumbled up a smart sensible active boy who was about two years old when I went to the trade. But as these things so frequently happen in New England, the disgrace was not much especially as he complied with the law’s and customs of that country [effective] on such occasions.

I then found myself fixed with them people for three years and was pleased at the idea of getting a trade that I might do something for myself at a future day and had no dread of any hardships, which I might endure in obtaining it. And as I had strong suspicions that my master wanted me more to work his place than to learn me the trade I was particularly careful to minute down every day halfday one third and quarter of days which I was at it and this unbeknown to all the world but myself and without any advice from my friends for about one year. When I found that it came so short of his agreement I communicated it to my brother King. Who was surprised at the account and approved my prudence and advised me to pursue it. Accordingly I did till it wanted but about two months of completing my outdoor work out of the shop for my apprenticeship. When I informed my master how the accounts stood. And gave him my advice not to call me off on trifleing business as it was probable that he would stand in real need of me that time when business was urgent in haytime etc. He seemed somewhat affronted in the first place that I had done it but as he was a pretty moderate man [he] did not strike me on the occasion. But it did not have the desired effect for before two years was out I had completed all my outdoors work and after that [I was] still compelled to work abroad till it overrun the agreement in my indentures about three months. I did not complain of anything else but the loss of my trade altlo' my fare was very coarse and hard and many things [were] imposed upon me which is ungenerous in masters to require or mistresses to ask.

My mistress was as well a very silly woman a very lazy one as well as proud and as bad a housekeeper who loved the best that the world afforded in victuals and would get drunk as often as she could come across liquor and to such excess that it would purge her both ways and lay her helpless. I soon discovered her weaknesses and put up with many things that I would otherwise have resented thro' her imprudence imperiousness and mismanagement. We was frequently without a maid as she could not keep one for any length of time. I being perfectly willing to serve them faithfully and to indulge her as far as possible learned to milk her cows and when learned and no maid at hand [was] ordered by her to do it as if I was a maid and [I] never disobeyed these commands. Nay Sir I did (here demean myself to the washing of dishes and never complained of it to mortal man lilt this day.

Altho my mistress was extravagant in some things she was rather penurious in others yet my master was always witling that 1 should have a bellyful of such as was going. But it frequently happened that it was very indifferent except when I ate with her which always did at dinner but never at breakfast and seldom at supper. 1 will mention one instance of my living which 1 think ought to be recorded altho' I am sure it win call my veracity in question. In the fall of the year the second year of my apprenticeship my master bought four sheep and salted them down and my mistress had a large iron pot that would contain three or four pails full. She picked out all the beans suitable for broth and boiled them all up together and made as good a pot of broth as perhaps .is was ever made in the parish. Of which I ate very heartily off for several days together. But when it came to lie about one week old I began to grow tired of it eating it constant twice a day and frequently three times and began to complain of it being too salt. To which she found an immediate remedy by adding water. I stuck to it until it was nine days old without complaining but finding no one eat it but myself and that it rather increased upon my hands I got almost disheartened and on the 10th day eat but very little and on the eleventh day eat none but a piece of dry bread only. And unfortunately on the 12 day after many complaints that no one would eat such fine broth and expanating on the loss of its being thrown away it was finally condemned to the hogwash. Which sacrifice I thought but just nor ever did I think that the gods was offended at it. But upon the whole I generally had my belly full of something or other altho much more indifferent and coarse than I was accustomed to at my fathers house.

I continued my apprenticeship with him for two years and till June following [1764] it being about 2 and a half years. He finding that he had come so short of his engagements and that he could have no more benefit from me working his place as I sometimes complained and sometimes threatened him he and his brother concerted as I suppose another plan. Benjamin Cheany followed nothing in the shop but wooden clocks and small brass work and my indentures was ambiguously expressed that he was to learn me clockwork and brass foundering. Before this time I had found my mistake and that he was not obliged to learn me anything but wooden clocks which he paid no attention to but kept me almost the whole of the time that I was in the shop at trifling pottering brass work and was when I left him almost totally ignorant of clockwork.

His brother Timothy Cheany followed making brass and wooden clocks and repaired watches. And agreed to take me for one year and learn me the three brandies. I being anxious to get the train agreed to accept his offer knowing I could not get it where I was. I applied to my father to be my security for my faithful performance of the time I was to serve him after I was of age. Who readily gave his bond for the same and the bond and indentures was executed on the 8th of June [1764] if 1 recollects right. And the specifications was very particular that he was to learn me the art of making brass and wooden clocks and also watch work. I took up my old indentures and went to him. Timothy Cheany’s wife was sister to Deborah Cheaney who was a pretty sensible good son of a woman as far as the duty of woman extends to their husbands and in all cases I believe endeavored to recommend herself to him by complying with his humors. They being married first the acquaintance in the two families brought on the other marriage.

As soon as my situation was changed I sat into work with high spirits, expecting then I was sure of getting a trade whereby I might subsist myself in a genteel way when I came for myself.

I was sat to work at small brass work with an expectation of being shortly put to clockwork. Which continued from week to week and month to month without any change except going out once in a while to work on his place and at his shop while he was building that summer tending on masons, carpenters etc. And as I had addicted myself to keeping accounts I did at that time of all my waste time. Which in the course of Eight months amounted to three mouths amusements besides three weeks my father called me off and [I was] not put to one single clock neither wood nor brass during that time. It is true I did begin one wooden one but never had lime to finish it.

The usage I met with in the house perhaps was as singular as is to be found in the United Stales. I always breakfasted dined and supped with my master or may say generally so and our victuals was generally pretty good and wholesome but I do not recollect ever eating sufficient to satisfy my hunger during my apprenticeship unless it was one evening when my master was from home and my mistress sat me down to a dish of toast and cider with a large dish of boiled potatoes when I eat nearly my fill. The true state of the matter was this. My master was always absent out of the shop before breakfast dinner and supper and was the smallest eater at those meals of any man I ever saw and seldom if ever [he] sat down to a meal without exclaiming against gluttonery. The family who knew him and who had victuals at command always eat as quick as him. And whenever I had eaten the piece he had cut for me he always started up and returned god thanks for what we had eaten or I believe I may say because I had eaten no more.

I have ever esteemed myself a very small eater and there learned lo eat very last and finally to cut for myself and now [I am] calling any man to eat a meat as quick as I can. Yet notwithstanding I never got a belly full with him at any one time....

And as to watchwork I never saw one put together during my apprenticeship and when I attempted to stand by him to see him put one together I was always ordered to my work. And what was the most singular of all it was but seldom that I could get to see any of his tools for watchwork as he had a drawer where he was particularly careful always to lock them up as if he was afraid I should know their use and by that means gain some information of the business. And he never would nor never did tell me the different parts the watch. And to this day I am ignorant of the names of many parts of a watch. And to this day I am ignorant of the names of a watch. The reason is I served my apprenticeship to clock and watch work and am ashamed to show my ignorance of the business by inquiry. Had it not been that I served y time to the business I probably might have been a considerable proficient [worker] in that trade but I never was permitted to turn a piece of brass or iron in his shop. Of course I was ever ashamed to attempt it in company afterwards [so] that my apprenticeship in fact was much worse to me than if I had taken the trade entirely out of my own head.

He was as well a wicked unjust man and intolerably mean a proud imperious hasty man [so] that I dreaded saying much to him till after I was of age, When I saw his designs I worried thro' it till the time arrived and [in January 1765,] three or lour days after I was twenty one years of age I requested him to put me to clock or watch work. When he refused I informed him that he had bound himself to learn me and that he could not expect me to do it in a day and I thought from that time to June was a short space enough to learn me that business considering I was al that nine ignorant of it. And after some words [I] told him it he did refuse me. I certainly would seek redress by the law after my fathers bond had expired. For which insolence he threatened to strike me and made an attempt as if he meant to pin his thoughts in execution. I rose off my scat and faced him and said Mr. Cheany do not strike me now for I am no longer your apprentice but if I do not serve you faithfully sue out the bond you have against my father. Which I believe checked him and perhaps was the first time that he recollected that I was a subject on an equal fooling with him. And he being a Grand Juryman that year a breach of the peace would have been pretty serious in him. Which I believe was the only reason why I escaped punishment for so heinous an offence.

After which quarrel my usage in the house became almost intolerable altho I had learned to eat near a belly full between prayers. But [I] rather concluded within myself to loose everything than to continue four months longer in such tortures. He finally told me that he would take eight pounds for the four months 1 had to serve him which I think was the most generous act of his life. And [he] gave me leave to go home to accommodate the matter.

I saw the cruelties with which I was treated the wickedness of the man the dilemma which 1 had brought myself into by running myself in debt three years to wear out them deaths for monsters and a demand of eight pounds more added to it. I sat out for home and cryed the whole distance and doubt not but nearly as much water came from my eyes as what I drank. I acknowledge that this is an unmanly passion but cannot to this day avoid such effeminency.

And when I got home dare not represent the case as it really was. I dare not inform them that I had not got the trade but trusted to my own abilities to gain it for fear that my friends would insist on my slaying inv time out. I applied to my brother King who probably had innocence enough on my brother Augustus lo go with him. We all went to my masters and them two gave their note for the money required to take up my fathers bond and I was to settle it with them.

I then found myself al liberty and obliged to take care of myself. I found myself bare of clothes and money I had none. 1 found myself upwards of twenty pounds in debt which in New England where money is so haul to be acquired was a pretty serious thing. I dare not attempt to go to work [—] journey work [—] for fear I should show my ignorance in the business I professed and [I] resolved to set up the business of small brass work myself if I could.

Source: John Fitch, The Autobiography of John Fitch (Philadelphia, Pa.,: American Philosophical Society, 1976), 34–43.