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Friday, January 13, 2012

Indentures of Apprenticeship from Early Nineteenth Century New York City

The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology in Washington, D.C. has a manuscripts collection with an amazing variety of documents. One box from the collection contains over 140 contracts of indenture (partially printed, and partially handwritten) from the Commissioners of the Alms-House and Bridewell, New York City, created between the years 1821 and 1823. These contracts record the apprenticeships of poor and abandoned children who were assigned to learn various trades under the supervision of established business owners. In return for room and board and a basic education, the indentured workers were supposed to provide several years of labor for their employers before being released from their contracts. Providing a grim window into both the diversity of trades and the depths of poverty in the growing city of New York, these indentures were a pragmatic measure taken by the government for the support of children who lacked parents or guardians. Here are two examples of these historic documents.

The first indenture, shown to the left, is for 14-year-old Henry Valentine, apprenticed to John Cochran, a "Mahogany Chair and Sopha [i.e. Sofa] Maker."

The second indenture, seen below, is for 14-year-old Clark Martin, apprenticed to John H. Metzler, a shoemaker. Both indentures are signed by the apprentice, the tradesman to whom the boy was assigned, and the government agent (John Hunter) who drew up the contract.

At the end of the indenture period, each boy was to be released from his apprenticeship with "a new suit of clothing in addition to his old, and a new Bible." And, if all went well, the young men would be able to go forth and establish their own businesses, benefitting from the hard years in service that they spent learning their trades. But not all situations necessarily turned out as planned; the contracts could be cancelled for a variety of reasons. The contract for Clark Martin, above, has a note written along the left side of the page that the agreement was "cancelled by consent of justice, Decem. 24th, 1825," with no further details.

More information on contracts of indenture from the city of New York can be found on the New-York Historical Society website, where a larger collection of these contracts is located.

New York (N.Y.). Alms-House and Bridewell Commission. Indentures of Apprenticeship, 1821-1823. Call number: MSS 001624 B SCDIRB Dibner Library

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. John Hunter, my 4xgreat grandfather was the manager of the New York city Poorhouse/ Old Almshouse. This must be him!