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5 Curious Facts About Apprenticeships in History


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Apprenticeship is an essential part of being human. Everyone who has ever walked this Earth was someone’s apprentice. At first, we are our parents’ apprentices, as they teach us basic skills and know-how.

Later on, as we start to develop our profession life, we may choose to become an apprentice in one of the many trades – learning from a carpenter, plumber, electrician, construction worker, lumberjack or many others. But these professional apprenticeships have come a long way to make it where they are today.

To brush up on trivia facts, especially if you’re an apprentice yourself, check out these 5 curious facts about apprenticeships and how they developed throughout history.

#1 Apprenticeships Date Back Thousands of Years.

Professional apprenticeships have been around for quite a while. Approximately 4000 years ago, the Babylonian king Hammurabi instituted a law code which, among other things, set down rules on how apprenticeships should function.

Most notably, the code’s provisions stated that apprentices were like adopted sons to the craftsmen they served. Egyptians, Romans, Greeks all followed suit and had their own peculiar systems of apprenticeships, to ensure the continuation of crafts and trades.

#2 Guilds in the Middle Ages: The Glamorous Life of a Penniless Journeyman.

Some time around the Middle ages, tradesmen began forming guilds in order to defend their interests. Those guilds exerted strong political and social influence and anyone who wanted to practice a particular trade had join the respective guild. Similar to today’s unions, guilds were guided by the goal of common standards and conditions.

At that time, apprentices lived with their masters, who provided them with food, clothing and shelter, but no pay whatsoever. Once the youth successfully completed their apprenticeships, they received a new set of clothes and some money. From then on they were called journeymen – but had yet to become masters.

#3 Apprenticeships Against Poverty, or the Harsh Life of Oliver Twist.

17th century England saw the institution of the Elizabethan Poor Law, which introduced ‘parish apprenticeships’. These were meant for orphans or for children whose families were poor. While not as prestigious as skilled apprenticeships, they still helped tackle and alleviate societal problems.

Another interesting aspect of the apprenticeship system at that time is that it included indentures. These were similar to modern apprenticeship agreements, but their conditions were not too enviable. Up until the mid to late 19th century, indentures were used for more or less all forms of apprenticeship.

Apprentices back then were nearly considered their master’s property. Oftentimes apprenticeships would last up to 7 years and apprentices would start out quite early, around the age of 14, sometimes even earlier.

#4 The Dark Side of Apprenticeships: Health Hazards in the 18th Century

While apprenticeships were invaluable to the continuation of the trades and played a major role in preserving masterful skills and traditions, they were at times also a harsh reality. Few apprentices back then could boast of owning specialized work gear. Chimney sweeps, for example, were quite an underprivileged group of apprentices.

Luckily, as history’s pages turned, so did the conditions for apprentices. When, in the beginning of the 19th century, indentures were gradually abolished, better conditions were finally, though slowly, instituted.

As for the Industrial revolution – while it did contribute to the worsening of conditions, the changes it instituted in societal order led to long-term changes in work conditions. The end of the revolution also marked a gradual betterment of conditions.

#5 Famous People Were Apprentices in Their Youth Too.

Ben Franklin was an apprentice at his brother’s print shop. He later quit, after they had some disagreements. Another notable example is Ralph Flanders who became a Republican U.S. Senator in 1946. During the first years of his working life he was a machinist apprentice. He was even indentured, although legal indentures were almost out of use by that time.

Apprenticeships today

As we arrive at our current times we see more and more rules and regulations go into place, that raise the status both of apprentices and apprenticeships.

Being an apprentice, though quite different from what it was 4000 or even 40 years ago, still plays an important and even vital societal role.

Apprentices are the lifeblood of the trades, they ensure their continuation. Without apprentices, businesses that rely on skilled work could not continue to exist. So if you ever end up wondering whether that apprenticeship makes sense, remember that much of the work in this world depends on people like you.

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