American Artisans

Artisans, skilled craftspeople, were found in many communities and social classes in colonial America, from slaves and the urban poor to leading businesspeople. Artisans were among the first American settlers, although they always lagged far behind farmers and agricultural laborers in numbers. Artisanal skills were vital even to small communities, and skilled carpenters or blacksmiths were found throughout rural America. (Relatively few, however, were adult indentured servants.) These artisans often could not support themselves by their craft alone and commonly divided their time between agricultural and artisan work. A rural blacksmith, for example, might abandon his forge during harvest season. Farmers also acquired artisanal skills, either to support their farming a farmer’s son might learn carpentry to build and maintain farm buildings or as a form of supplemental income. The artisanal economy was stronger in the cities, with their developed markets, than in rural areas. It was also stronger in the Northern and Middle colonies than in the South. The less urbanized South had smaller markets, and many of the Southern elite preferred to order the goods they wanted from London or the North. Even in the villages, white artisans in the South, particularly in the Carolina low country, complained about the difficulty of competing with slaves. Artisans entered their trades through many paths. Often, the eldest son of an artisan’s family entered his father’s trade and took over the business. This pattern was more common in capital-intensive trades like blacksmithing, where the initial investment for a forge, furnace, and tools daunted the newcomer. Artisans learned their trade by doing, and their children worked in the shops, starting as young as 6 years old and at first doing light tasks like sweeping. Some trade schools existed. (The Moravians of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, opened a school to train craftsmen in 1757, and spinning schools trained poor girls to become spinners.) For those not born into a trade, such as the younger sons of farmers, however, the normal way to enter it was still apprenticeship. Boys, and sometimes girls, were usually apprenticed around the age of 12. The demand for artisans, however, made it impossible to maintain in the colonies the requirement of the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers, which held that apprentices must serve a full seven years before being released; apprentices often left that status after only three or four years. The overall trend in the colonial period was for artisanal workshops to move from a household model, where apprentices and journeymen were treated as members of the master’s family, to one based on contractual relations of work done for wages. Artisanal work was strongly gendered. Most well-paying occupations were limited to males, either by the need for physical strength, or more often, by custom, although women were occasionally found even in the metalworking trades. Among the few artisanal trades open to women in numbers were hat making, dressmaking, embroidery, and making artificial flowers. However, the male artisan’s wife could be an important participant in the business, keeping the books and managing the shop, while not actually practicing the craft.
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