While doing research for Gunpowder and Tea Cakes: My Journey With Felicity, I discovered that a few girls in colonial Williamsburg may have been doing work I once thought was open only to boys. Cool!
Certainly, girls were involved in traditional roles. I had the chance to ask interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg questions about cooking, for example.
The kitchen at Great Hopes Plantation.
And I saw several young women working in a dressmaker’s shop. Milliners specialized in making hats, and mantua-makers stitched gowns and accessories. Like all skilled trades, this work usually required an apprenticeship.
An experienced seamstress would hire younger women, and teach them her skills.
Colonial Williamsburg has a modern program that allows men and women to become apprentices and learn a specific skill. After learning the basics, apprentices graduate to journeywoman or journeyman status. The most skilled may one day become masters and run a shop.
Hard at work.
An example of the fashions produced in such a shop.
I also saw several women who were apprentices in nontraditional roles. The young woman below was in the 2nd year of a 7-year apprenticeship at a joinery. Joiners produced things like window frames, doors, and shutters.
Apprentices usually started at age 14. They had to be tall enough to work at the bench, and spent 12-hour days in the shop.
A master craftsman would rule a shop like this. A journeyman, who had some skills but had not finished his or her apprenticeship, would help train the apprentices.
I discovered female apprentices learning to make wagon wheels,
An apprentice watches as the master craftsman checks her saw.
The final product.
The man interpreting here told me that he’s not aware of official female tinsmith apprentices in the colonies, but he has seen women mentioned in records—probably all family members who learned the trade from their husband or father.
Some of the finished products, ready for sale.
And this woman was helping a man make a saddle in the military artificer’s shop. (An artificer, pronounced ar-TI-fi-cer, had the skills to make different items the army needed.)
“There were women in almost all the trades, if help was needed and they could do the work,” one interpreter told me.
If you had lived in colonial times, would you have wanted to become an apprentice? What skill would you like to learn?
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