Were There Female Apprentices in Early America?

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Ladies in Colonial Dress at Colonial Williamsburg

In 18th-century America, most apprentices were boys. But some girls and young women also apprenticed in preparation for becoming a tailor or mantuamaker.

Apprenticeships were common in early America as a way for boys and young men to learn a craft. Boys served as apprentices in printing shops, wigmaking shops, and bookbinding shops, for example. They would have contracts that would bind them for as long as seven years to a master craftsman. Then the young man would serve as a journeyman, working more independently, and eventually establish his own shop as a master craftsman.

Mantuamakers and Gownmakers

This was not the normal pattern for girls. But apprenticeships for girls were not unknown. Female apprentices worked in the shops of dressmakers—then often called mantuamakers or gownmakers—and sometimes with tailors. As with boys, some of these apprenticeships were based on formal contracts between the child’s parents and the artisan with the aim of teaching the child a skill she could use one day to earn money.

Poor and Orphaned Girls

Such formal apprenticeships for girls tended to be short—just one year. Sometimes, though, they could be very long and involving poor and orphaned girls, some very young. A 1770 document records an apprenticeship binding seven-year-old Rebeccah Baxter to tailor Elijah Treadway in Middletown, Connecticut. According to the terms of the document, she was to stay in Treadway’s household for 11 years—until she turned 18. Records from Boston show that in 1769, Ann Cromartie, age 13, was bound to Ruth DeCosta by the Overseers of the Poor to learn the “Art, Trade or Mystery of a Mantuamaker.” Her term was about five years, again until she turned 18.

In many cases the apprenticeships were informal and never documented in any contracts. Historians know about such apprenticeships only through scattered references in diaries, account books, and other records.

Some businesses would advertise for a female apprentice. An 1810 advertisement from a “dressmaker, milliner, pelisse and corset maker” sought a “Young Lady, who can be well recommended as an apprentice.”

Cutting Cloth an Especially Important Skill

At the beginning of her apprenticeship, a girl would do odd jobs—sweeping up, sorting, keeping the fire going, taking finished garments to customers. Over time, she would learn how to measure and sew. Cutting cloth was taught last. Because cloth was so expensive, it could not be wasted. Thus, cutting was an especially important skill. As with boy apprentices, a girl apprentice did not always get the education she bargained for. Masters sometimes feared that the apprentice, after learning the craft, would open a shop and become a competitor. So some masters delayed the apprentice’s education or refused to explain key skills. Some masters simply used apprentices as servants.

Records from a Massachusetts lawsuit in 1791 tell of 24-year-old Clarinda Colton’s contract with tailor Ithamar Burt. She was supposed to get one year of training. But her parents alleged in the suit that when Clarinda returned home after one year, she knew almost nothing about cutting. Clarinda had apparently been assigned mainly to do household chores.

Assistants for Low-Skill Tasks

A tailor or dressmaker might have more than one apprentice. Catherine Parsons, a female tailor, generally had three or four apprentices at a time. In some advertisements, businesses asked for eight to ten apprentices. In some cases, these “apprentices” may have been merely assistants brought on to handle low-skilled tasks during peak demand.

Sources:

  1. Miller, Marla R. “Gender, Artisanry, and Craft in Early New England: The View through the Eye of a Needle.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 743-776.
  2. Miller, Marla R. “The Last Mantuamaker: Craft Tradition and Commercial Change in Boston, 1760-1845.” Early American Studies (Fall 2006).