Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America

By Ralph Frasca | Go to book overview

2
From Apprentice to Journeyman to Master Printer

While apprenticed to Benjamin Franklin's grandson, Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin Bache, David Chambers confessed to his father in 1796 that his health was failing due to the long hours, hard work, and nominal diet, which consisted of “bread & Tea for breakfast & Supper.” “[B]utter is forbidden fruit here,” Chambers wrote. “Mr. Bache tells the prentices that Dr. Franklin used to say butter blinded printers.”1 His concerned father responded, “If your health should not permit a proper attendance to business it might be proper for you” to leave Bache's shop. “Your determination in the City must depend entirely on the state of health you may attain together with your own inclination.”2 Chambers persevered, though, graduating from his apprenticeship to become a master printer in the new state of Ohio. He later used his journalistic prominence as a springboard to politics, gaining election as a state senator and later a U.S. Representative from Ohio.3

Although Chambers endured, the grueling life of an apprentice proved to be more than many eighteenth-century boys could abide. Franklin was one who could not, abandoning his own printing apprenticeship in 1723. The apprenticeship, in printing and many other trades, was a well-established social custom for conveying vocational training to youths in the American colonies and abroad. It originated in medieval England, where governments assumed responsibility for regulating commerce and ensuring a sufficient workforce. Beginning at a young age, apprentices served up to ten years as contractually bound, unpaid laborers. They made written promises not to gamble, marry, fornicate, patronize taverns, buy and sell without the master's permission, or divulge business secrets. They worked long hours six days per week, per-

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