GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Tin-Plate-Worker, Nearly opposite the Great Bridge, Providence.”
This advertisement was for a very specific service, tin smithing, done by “ARTHUR FENNER, jun. Tin-Plate-Worker.” This advertisement caught my eye because it was not advertising mass-produced goods; it advertised specific services done by an expert craftsman. Fenner announced that “he makes and mends all Sorts of Tin Ware” and that “the Public may depend that his Work shall be well executed.” The advertisement focused on the quality of the work.
This advertisement reminds modern readers that there was a different culture related to the creation of products in the eighteenth century. There were no factories in the 1700s. Everything pertaining to the manufacture of a good had to be passed down through the generations. Skilled craftsmen sold their wares to make a living. In order to be successful at a trade there was a prescribed course of training that started with an apprenticeship and ended with becoming a master craftsman. This process gave young men the opportunity to become experts in a trade. The idea of apprenticeship is foreign to most modern Americans; it does not have the same place in today’s society. However, it was a cultural norm and an important step in ensuring the continuity of trades in the eighteenth century. The practice of widespread apprenticeship in the colonies was an effect of British influence: “apprenticeship practices and associated legal arrangements were imported from Britain into the American colonies.” Apprenticeship was a significant component of trade in America and that idea is reflected in this advertisement.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Megan notes the training that colonial craftsmen received before they established their own shops, contrasting the eighteenth-century system of apprenticeship to modern practices. Some occupations continue to refer to junior colleagues – those who have not yet completed their training or passed exams to become licensed or certified – as apprentices while they gain experience and learn from others who have already mastered a trade. Despite the name, however, today’s apprentices have very different experiences than those of the eighteenth century.
During the colonial era, apprenticeship usually began when a young man was in his early teens and lasted for several years. During that time the apprentice usually became a member of his master’s household: working and living with the man who assumed the responsibility of training him in a specific trade. Master and apprentice signed a contract that specified the obligations each had to the other. In addition to training an apprentice, the master provided room and board. As a member of the master’s household, an apprentice was subject to discipline (including corporal punishment) both in the workshop and in the home. Masters set curfews and oversaw apprentices’ activities during their free time. Modern systems for training young people in various trades differ quite significantly from eighteenth-century methods, despite the continued use of the word “apprentice” to denote someone in the process of learning a trade.
Arthur Fenner did not explicitly mention his training in this advertisement. Instead, he emphasized the quality and price of his work, leaving it to potential customers to draw their own conclusions about how he obtained his skills. Other colonial artisans and tradesmen, however, sometimes noted that they had completed an apprenticeship as a means of reassuring clients that they possessed the necessary skills. Fenner addressed “his old Customers and Friends in particular,” suggesting that he had worked in Providence for some time. Perhaps if he had been new to town he would have been more likely to promote his training as part of his marketing.
 Bernard Elbaum, “Why Apprenticeship Persisted in Britain But Not in the United States” Journal of Economic History 49, no. 2 (June 1989): 338.