The Reality of Apprenticeships in the 19th Century

So imagine yourself – 10 or 12 years of age and one day your mother, father or stepfather delivers you to the home of another, where you will serve time learning the art and mystery of a trade. Provisions are set for your maintenance, which may or may not include attending schooling. Upon serving your time you will receive two suits of clothes, one set to be new, and if you are lucky perhaps a couple of dollars. Maybe both your parents are dead or destitute and the Guardians for the Relief or Employment of the Poor or the Managers of the Almshouse sign your next seven years away. This was a fact of life in the 18th and 19th century and the indentures I looked at today are poignant.

From 1824 to 1851 nine children whose indentures made their way into the Copper Wash Tub were apprenticed to John and Hannah Young to learn farming, gardening, housewifery and plain sewing. Many of the indentures indicate the property to be in the “City of Philadelphia, District of Southwark, Passyunk Township.” According to a lease agreement that is part of this collection John was leasing the Girard Farm from Stephen Girard and it’s possible that John’s land may have abutted the Girard Farm.

Of particular interest are the three Jones sisters. Their mother, Elizabeth Wiltoner, who it would appear has remarried, apprentices Elizabeth Jones to John and Hannah Young in August of 1836 for a period of two years ten months and twenty-three days. Then in May of


Elizabeth Jones Indenture

1838 James Wiltoner (stepfather) apprentices Hester Ann Jones to the Youngs for a period of four years and eight months. In December of 1838 James Wiltoner (stepfather) apprentices Margaret Jane Jones to the Youngs for a period of two years and fifteen days. The first question to come to my mind is did their mother die and was their stepfather just passing them off to someone else till they reached their majority? Or perhaps Hannah Young was a friend of their mother and she was doing what she could to provide for the girls? Provisions are provided for limited attendance at school for each of the girls. Elizabeth and Hester Ann are both to receive a sum of money upon the completion of their terms but not Margaret Jane. However, only Margaret Jane is to learn “Plain Sewing” so perhaps this gives her a life skill to earn a living after her term?

In 1826 at the age of 14 the Managers of the Almshouse apprenticed Walker West to the Youngs for a term of seven years. However, the contract is canceled just four months after it is signed because of “the Boy having absconded.”

The Guardians for the Relief and Employment of the Poor apprentice John Clemens at the age of eight, to the Youngs in March of 1851 for a term of twelve years five months and twenty-seven days.  As part of the Guardians contract the “master” is to show proof that the apprentice has attended school, as per the contract at the completion of the term. Contained in this collections are various small slips of paper three of which


John Clemens Indenture

certify that John as been attending Point Breeze Public School, John Brunt, Principal.


Receipt fo schooling for John Clemens

Apprenticeships were a way to provide for your children without actually providing for them yourself. In some cases these apprentices learned trades and became active in their local communities. But I suspect more often than not these faceless children just vanish from the records. I’m really wishing I could find out what happened to the Jones sisters. . . . . maybe the Copper Wash Tub will reveal their secrets as I continue to work my way through the documents contained within it.