Saturday, February 19, 2011

Printer's Guilds & Apprenticeships

On the history of printers' guilds and trade unions:
Prior to the invention of print, the making of books was carried on by three guilds, the scriveners', illuminators', and bookbinders' guilds. The scribes wrote the books with quill pens; the illuminators designed initials and decorations and embellished them in gold, silver and colors; and the bookbinders preserved the finished works in suitable bindings. When the printed books of Gutenberg, Fust, Schoeffer, and Caxton, and other early printers began to find their way into the channels of trade, after the middle of the fifteenth century, the need for scribes and illuminators became less and less until, finally, they were merged into a printer's guild.
On apprenticeship in the days of the guilds:
In those days, if a boy desired to learn a trade, he was obliged to apply to one of the master craftsmen, to whom, if satisfactory arrangement could be made, he was indentured for a number of years. Apprentices seldom received wages for their services, but were frequently required to pay the master for the training and education received. The master, however, provided board, lodging, clothing, medical treatment and books. The term of apprenticeship in the printing trade was usually seven years. 
When a boy had finished his apprenticeship or "served his time," he was required by the guild to demonstrate his ability to do a journeyman's work before he could claim pay as a workman....a journeyman aspiring to become a master craftsman or employer was required to produce a "masterpiece." This piece of work had to be set, proofread, and printed entirely by the applicant's own hands as proof of competency.
ITU Lessons in Printing. Trade Unionism Unit VI (1958)


  1. I think that apprenticeships are a valuable way to pass on real quality in skill sets. Today everyone thinks that they're an expert - and puffed resumes are routine. The old Masonic Lodges, the master of the craft, the move from there to trade unionism helped build the middle class in Europe and the West.

    Today there is no master's requirement to join the union. People are signed in without letters or references simply to swell the ranks.

  2. The master, however, provided board, lodging, clothing, medical treatment and books.

    Free medical treatment! Of course it would cause more harm than good; and I don't think providing books was much of a perk, since they would by lying around anyway.

    As to the food, clothing, and a place to sleep, that's the sort of thing they would provide a slave. Consider that the apprentice worked for free, for years at a time, and often were legally prevented from leaving their masters. What labor union would agree to this deal today?

    Horrible times!

  3. @LL: My father apprenticed in the late 1950's and advanced to Journeyman. I have his union card around someplace.

    The Europeans (the Germans and Dutch in particular) have an elaborate system of apprenticeships for the trades. Students "self-select" at an early stage and are shunted into various pathways according to tested aptitudes. I'm vaguely familiar with this from relatives and from having lived over there. What troubles me about such systems is whether they would effectively block someone who tested well at a younger age, but who then tested or performed poorly at an intermediate stage for various reasons, but who was able to overcome those reasons at a later time. It seems to me that the "European way" could effectively crush all but the Michael Faradays of their time.

  4. In UK at the current financial state we're in, a lot of people have been paying apprentices, and when they're fully qualified, they let them go and get someone else.

  5. @Dan That sounds harsh and old school!

  6. I know it's harsh, but that's just the way it is. I think there has to be some kind of protection in place because about 25% of young people are out of work.

  7. Dan: I'll make an analogy: graduate school stipends in the sciences. They were only intended to support students for a fixed period of "apprenticeship" after which a student was expected to graduate and move on. Instead, an entire student class and worse, a postdoc class was established.

    Now the societal benefits of this are apparent: good quality science at affordable prices. I've long argued that if the government wanted to solve the healthcare problem in this country they should mimick what was done after Sputnik: massive subsidy and more enrollments- presto - more affordable healthcare. Of course this would destroy the medical profession as it now stands.