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“The Natural Tie Between Master and Apprentice has been Rent Asunder”: An Old Apprentice Laments Changes in the Workplace, 1826

The urban workplace changed dramatically in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The American Revolution, with its rampant egalitarianism, dissolved much of the paternalistic control once wielded by fathers, masters and other authority figures, as the anonymous author “Old Apprentice” made clear in his set of three letters to the New York Observer in 1826. But significant blame for this erosion rested with the manufacturers themselves. Eager to seize upon new markets with expanded production, they divided up tasks to produce cheaper clothing or shoes. Semiskilled and unskilled women and children performed this labor rather than apprentices or other workingmen of the traditional artisanal system. These changes also dissolved the traditional residential patterns, pushing working men out into the housing market. A loss of reciprocity and responsibility occurred on both sides.

For the New York Observer October 7, 1826

Apprentices No. 1

… The tendency of our laws, which give masters no control over their apprentices, or the manner in which these laws are enforced or abused, by affording to unruly apprentices inducements to complain of, and to mortify and perplex their masters, has induced the solution on the part of the most respectable master mechanics, not to take apprentices at all. It is a fact well known to many, that there are great numbers of poor and friendless boys in our streets, who are yet honest, and desirous to work, but who, in consequence of this state of disorganization, are unable to obtain the knowledge of a trade. These may be seen wandering about our docks, or lounging at the Intelligence Office, until their scanty funds are exhausted, when to avoid starvation, they resort to pilfering, and are at length brought to the House of Refuge or in some other place of confinement less favorable to the reformation of character.

I had occasion, recently, to look at the form of an indenture; and presuming that I should find several in the first shop I entered, I stepped into my tailors, when to my surprise I found that, although one of the largest establishments in our city, the proprietors had not a single apprentice. I then went to several other tailors, jewelers, watch-makers, printers, and bootmakers before I could succeed. In enquiring the cause, I found that they all agreed (with a single exception), in the reasons here assigned, viz. the insufficiency of the existing laws to compel an apprentice to do his duty, and the power given to an obstinate and exasperated boy, in case of even moderate punishment, to drag his masters before a court, exposing him to the degradation of unmerited punishment, or at least subjecting him to expense, loss of time and the mortifying sneers of the rest of the boys who thus learn that they may pursue the same course with impunity.

That apprentices should be protected from the abuse of capricious or tyrannical maters, is in accordance with justice and the sprit of our government; but that a master should not have the power of compelling to the performance of his duty, an obstinate boy, who has been of little or no use in the early part of his apprenticeship, and who, when he has half learned his trade, will court the breaking of his indentures that he may be employed elsewhere as a journeyman, is a monstrous extension of Mr. Jefferson’s “free and equal” declaration. It is not only subversive of good order and government between masters and apprentices, but it is subversive also of these principles, in the exercise of which in their purity, we have the surest, indeed the only guarantee of the continuance of our boasted independence….


For the New York Observer October 14, 1826

Apprentices No. 2

… It is generally admitted, that intemperance among mechanics, and among the boys employed by them, has alarmingly increased of late; and it is, I conceive, a natural consequence of the present loose system of taking boys. In the course of my inquiries I saw four or five boys, from ten to fourteen years of age, romping at their work; and upon asking, “Are not these boys apprenticed?” was answered, "Oh no! they are little journeymen; they are received upon the same footing, are paid their wages regularly, and know and feel that they are freemen; and of course soon discover it by their conduct. If one of them should dislike a word of reproof, he will call for his wages and quit me instantly; and there are employers enough who will receive them, and care nothing for their moral character, or their steadiness, or constancy at their work.“ There are too large a portion of mechanics who prefer the present system, as they look not beyond their own immediate wants. If they advertise for a lad ”who has some knowledge of this business," they will be sure to find numerous disaffected boys, who have got through the first drudgery of their noviciate—which will save some trouble to their next employers. These men prefer that the boys should not be bound as in that case there is nothing binding upon them. If the boy is taken sick or is guilty of misconduct, he can be turned adrift upon the public or his friends, and no responsibility attached to the employer.

There is one important view of the subject, which this class of men seem entirely to have overlooked, viz. that they are contributing, by their practice, to form and to perpetuate the insubordinate characters of which they complain. Masters will tell you that their journeymen repeatedly leave them, with no word of explanation, for several days together; and it is proverbial that during the Spring races, troops of them invariably drop the paint brush or the saw, for the race-course; and the whole family is thus left in confusion till the races are past and the workmen are sobered. During last spring, I was hurrying to make some repairs for a tenant; three different mechanics undertook the job, and the workmen of each deserted for the race-course. Several of my friends experienced the same treatment.

Now, I ask, what is the cause of all these complaints? and why is a punctual mechanic so rare, as to induce the confession from one of the most worthy, "there is now no such thing as punctuality among them?&8221; Is it not because the natural tie between master and apprentice, has been rent asunder? As there is now no community of interest, so there is no community of feeling between them. The master no longer lives among his apprentices, watches over their moral as well as mechanical improvement, accompanies them on Sunday to a place of public worship, counsels them when in trouble, keeps them and comforts them in sickness, and when he is able, gives them, with their good name, some assistance to begin the world for themselves….


For the New York Observer October 28, 1826

Apprentices No. 3

As I have before remarked, boys have themselves become the judges of the proper time to assume the character of journeymen; and it is lamentable, said my informant, to see men who profess to be respectable, countenance such a system. A stout boy lately applied to him for work, as a competent journeyman, and produced his credentials, viz. a certificate from a respectable mechanic, that the boy "understood his business, having worked for him during the space of two years” Two entire years! to acquire a complete knowledge of an art and mystery, which in England is not learned short of seven years! Surely our mechanics deceive themselves, if they suppose that a plan which tends to reduce the perfection of their workmanship, and to degrade the moral character of boys, (the future mechanics of our city), can in the end be profitable. If the persent system is puruse, as it appears likely to be, and ten years hence the names and relative duties of master and apprentice shall be virtually unknown, what is then to support the dignity and the wealth, the character and the skillfulness, of the mechanics of New-York?—a body of men, who as a class (I speak of the old regime,) can number as much worth and welaht, as much public spirit and liberality, as any other class of our citizens….


Source: New York Observer (New York, New York), October 7, 14, and 28, 1826.