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