Colonial Education: The Master and the Apprentice

Apprenticeships and indentures were a common way for a child to gain an education during the colonial time period. When a child was 14, his parents would arrange an apprenticeship or indenture for their child. This period in the child’s life could last up to 7 years. As the apprentice or indenture is still a minor in this case, the master was legally regarded as in loco parentis. As a result, the master was legally responsible to educate the apprentice/indenture at least to the legal standard. Many parents, however, wanted more. So the parents would haggle with the master in order to include specific educational provisions in the agreement. A study by Quimby (Apprenticeships in Colonial America) found that about two-thirds of indentures included provisions for education.

When these clauses were included the master would be required to teach the apprentice much more than just his trade. The master would be required to teach morality, bookkeeping, reading, and writing. Basic math would be included in bookkeeping. If the master was unable to teach his apprentice in areas outside his trade, the apprentice would go to an evening or winter school depending on when the apprentice had more free time. These schools began opening up in the late 1600s to early 1700s.

There were also several Poor-Laws enacted in the Massachusetts Bay Colonies in this time period. Their purpose was to ensure an elementary level education for all citizens who could not get it through other means. The laws stated that boys should learn reading, writing, and cyphering. While girls should learn reading and writing.

As time went on, education began to take on more social value. This put some of the education out of the masters’ abilities. As a result, masters would pay to send their apprentice to school to become educated. However, towards the end of the colonial period, this cost was shifted back onto the apprentices’ parents.

Once the apprentice completed their apprenticeship, many were not able to successfully run their own business. A defining characteristic of those who were successful in becoming independent after they finished their apprenticeship was the education they pursued on their own. In order to help apprentices progress in their careers, Boston built an Apprentices Library.


The Education of Indentured Servants in Colonial America by Mark R. Snyder

Colonial Education

Many of America’s colonists were religious, in this case, some variation of Christian and came to escape persecution. As a result of valuing their religion, the colonists sought a way to pass on their beliefs to their children. Education was seen as an effective evangelism method because a person who could read could read the Bible. The literacy rate (for men) in the colonies was about 70% versus about 40% for Britain and 29% in France.

Massachusetts made the reason it valued education explicit in 1642 by passing a law that states, “Select men of every town, in the several precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may enable them perfectly to read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes…..Also that all masters of families do once a week (at the least) catechize their children and servants in the grounds & principles of Religion, & if any be unable to do so much: that then at the least they procure such children or apprentices to learn some short orthodox catechism without book, that they may be able to answer unto the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechism by their parents or masters or any of the Select men when they shall call them to a tryall of what they have learned of this kind…….”

In a positive reading of this law, Massachusetts is saying, while it takes a village to raise a child, each family is responsible to teach their children the basics of reading and writing. They are required to either do so themselves or to find some other arrangement (school/tutor) where their child will learn. The state also required parents to catechize (educate) their children about religion (Christianity).

In order to meet the demand for education, product hawkers and education publishers cropped up. One product that developed in this time period was the hornbook. A hornbook is simply a thin piece of wood with paper on top of it. Then, the paper is covered by a thin, transparent horn (hence, hornbook). The paper would often have the alphabet (upper and lower case), common syllables, and the Lord’s Prayer included.  

In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law requiring all towns of at least 50 families establish a petty (elementary) school and that every town of 100 or more families establish a Latin (grammar) school top help prepare students for higher education (often ministry, law, or medicine).

While both boys and girls would attend the petty schools, families prioritized education for their boys. There are a myriad of reasons for this, one of the large ones would be that the boys needed to be able to manage finances and take over the farm/family business one day. The petty schools taught reading, writing, cyphering (math, I think), and religion.

Students would attend Latin schools from the ages of 10-14. After this point, if students were going to continue their education they would move on to a university. In addition to Latin, these schools also taught math, science, and the classics.