by Peter Follansbee
How we go about learning to build “period” furniture today is nothing like what the makers of our study pieces did.
In the pre-Industrial era, apprenticeship was the principal method of learning any trade. In the English -speaking world, if you practiced a trade without having served your time, you would find yourself on the receiving end of some discomfort.
In early 17th-century England, the law stipulated that an apprentice was to serve “at least seven years” – no small commitment. If you spent seven years working under one craftsman, through sheer repetition, you’d learn his or her moves inside and out.
The apprentice’s work would take on the look of the master’s, to the point where they might be indistinguishable. There are numerous examples of surviving works in which we can see the relationship from one object to another, but careful study shows they are clearly different “hands,” as we say in furniture studies.
The Long View
My research into the English apprenticeship system circa the 17th century shows a model that was limited in its scope. At that time, an apprentice received no pay, with the exception that some were paid half-wages in the final year of their time. The boy’s father would make an initial payment to the master to bind the apprentice to him.
These customs were long ago abandoned. But just the functional aspects of traditional English apprenticeships are impractical in the modern world. What craftsman today would take a young person into a home and shop for seven years, taking on all the charges of that young person, while spending time and attention on his or her training?
While the traditional apprentice took up a lot of time, materials and attention in the early training years, the notion was that the craftsman got an eventual return; in later years the apprentice worked on his own to produce goods for the master.
But what of today? Generally speaking, craftsmen and craftswomen who earn their living making and selling their work cannot afford to take on apprentices in the traditional sense.
From the November 2015 issue