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Indentured servant on streets of London

A little history is fun.

To this end- history and fun- I am going to parse out a few historical facts and reminders about apprenticeship each month, for the remainder of 2017.

If you’re a regular reader here, you know I have mentioned before that the trades do a poor job of telling their own story. It’s an interesting story and has deep roots.

…and that whole thing of, “if you don’t know your history and learn from it, you are doomed to repeat it” ? Yes. I believe that’s a thing worthy of attention.

As I research and read about the trades in America I am struck by this clear thought; the history of apprenticeship helps us identify where the cultural stigmas, still prevalent today, came from.

Indentured Servitude not to be confused with Apprenticeship

Examples of indenture can be found as far back as the 15th century in England; quite simply it was the answer to short term labor concerns on large estates of land. As people were displaced from farming themselves, they ended up in the servitude of a lord or landowner. For the landowner this was cheaper than slave labor.

In the Americas, tobacco was the king of cash crops- and very labor intensive. Indenture was a complicated system starting with the laborer selling himself/herself into a contract of labor for a period of years to pay the indenture off. Landowners were enticed with larger parcels of land based on a “per servant “ basis, as in 50 acres per servant. The landholder (or headright) would then have to buy the indentured servant, paying off their passage from England, and the indentured servant then had a long road ahead to pay off the servitude. Indentured servants were often treated in a cruel and brutish manner.

Indentured servitude was NOT an apprenticeship, however some apprentices were in indentured positions. Here’s the distinction: indenture derives its name from the practice of tearing notches or indentions into the duplicate copies of apprenticeship forms. This uneven edge, in the hands of an apprentice, identified the form as a copy of the paperwork held by his master. This paperwork was signed by both the master and the guardian or parent of the apprentice- the general age of apprentices being 14.

To add to cultural bias and confusion, indentured servants ran the gamut from a criminal given indenture to pay off crime rather than hanging, to simply unskilled labor, to semi- skilled labor, and all the way up to craftsman with specific skills in smithing, brick making, carpentry, and weaving.

The craftsman class among indentured servants had the best chance of securing both better and shorter contracts.

With a confusing blurring of the lines between indentured servitude and true apprentices- and the fact that many men, women, and children were forced into severe poverty by indenture, a misplaced stigma stayed with apprenticeship in the Americas.

In your next moment of apprenticeship ZEN, we’ll explore real apprenticeship, master craftsman, and guilds.

Stay tuned….