Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia


As skilled laborers who hand-crafted their goods on a per-customer basis, artisans played a central role in the formation of Philadelphia’s prerevolutionary economy: producing essential goods and services and providing social stability within households composed not just of immediate family but also of journeymen and apprentices. American independence brought artisans new economic opportunities as the city expanded and new markets emerged. With the maturing of a market economy, however, artisans, and journeymen in particular, faced the loss of both social and economic status as the economy that supported such work became more volatile and contentious.

A color photograph of tourists taking a photo on Elfreth's Alley, a narrow cobblestone and brick street lined with restored eighteenth and nineteenth century row homes.

Elfreth’s Alley was once home to a small community of artisans, who often operated workshops in the front rooms of their homes. One of these workshops has been recreated in the Elfreth’s Alley Museum House. (Photograph by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)

During the early colonial period, up until the mid-1760s, the town economy of Philadelphia built on the contributions of artisans and entrepreneurs. Artisan shops produced shoes, soap, wagons, clothes and food for the town, while also laying bricks and constructing buildings. By 1745, master artisans made up 48 percent of the total population of Philadelphia, highlighting their significance to the burgeoning town. For artisans of this period, the home and workshop were very often in the same building or at the least in close proximity. In some cases, master artisans labored alone to complete specific orders for their customers, but in many cases they relied on the work of indentured servants, slaves, and a few skilled journeymen to assist in the completion of their tasks. Master artisans were respected throughout the city, due in large part to the vital goods they provided the community, but also for the independence of their craft.

A black and white illustration of an early nineteenth century shoemaker cutting leather. Behind him, finished shoes dry on a clothes line and are displayed in compartments along the wall.

In the eighteenth century, becoming a master artisan took many years of training and practice. Apprentices began their education young, graduated to journeymen wage workers, and could only be considered masters after displaying a very high skill level in their trade. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

By the end of the Seven Years’ War (1754-63) the labor market had changed dramatically to favor free laborers over indentured servants, whose availability had declined. Typically, then, master artisans owned the shop, ordered supplies, supervised the workers, and continued to work alongside his employees, including apprentices and journeymen. Apprentices were traditionally teenagers who spent three to seven years learning their craft under their masters, from whom they could expect room, board, and education. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one they would be promoted to journeymen status, given a set of tools, a suit, and a wage. Journeymen were skilled workers who performed their work with little interference from the master and received pay by the day or by piece. Tradesmen viewed this system of labor as a type of fluid hierarchy in which apprentices would someday climb the artisanal ladder, from journeymen to master and proprietor of their own shops.

Masters, Journeymen, Apprentices

The relationship between master artisans, journeyman, and apprentices was initially built on mutual respect, and master artisans took a paternal role over their laborers. Work was performed at a casual pace and on a per customer basis. Workers wore leather aprons, shared workbenches, and worked with hand tools to construct their goods. The workday was long, traditionally twelve to fourteen hours, but consisted of morning breaks for coffee and beer, a lunch break in the early afternoon, and a late afternoon break for a snack. Overall, artisans within Philadelphia strove for “competence,” the ability to provide enough money to support their families and save a little for the future, but few master artisans were actually able to reach this level of economic comfort.

The front page of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser with two prominent skull and crossbones printed on it, one where the normal header would be and one in the upper left corner. Article text announces that the newspaper is folding due to the cost of the Stamp Act.

After the Seven Years’ War, Britain began to tax the colonies directly with acts like the Stamp Act of 1765, satirized with a skull-and-crossbones stamp in this Philadelphia-based newspaper from that year. The boycotts spawned by these acts increased demand for colonial artisans’ goods. (Library of Congress)

The end of the Seven Years’ War also brought implementation of imperial acts by Britain on the colonies. These acts served as a blessing for many struggling Philadelphia artisans because many of them did not tax home-produced goods. As Philadelphians used the policies of nonimportation, or the boycotting of British goods, in the years leading up to the American Revolution, the purchase of home-produced goods brought increased business to Philadelphia artisans. Nonimportation pitted artisans against merchants who benefited from Atlantic trade with Britain, but these differences were largely cast aside once war broke out. During the War for Independence, Philadelphia artisans enjoyed a period of production with little competition. This did not last long, for when the war ended and Atlantic trading resumed, artisans found themselves once again competing against foreign goods. During the postrevolutionary years, they joined merchants in seeking a stronger central government that would protect the nation’s domestic industries.

Dramatic Shifts After the Revolution

The postrevolutionary years also brought dramatic shifts to the relationship between master artisans, journeymen, and apprentices. By the 1780s masters no longer signed contracts with apprentices promising tools, clothes, or an education, but instead replaced these items with monetary compensation. Masters refrained from teaching apprentices the art of the craft and instead tended to rely on them as simple wage laborers. The increased presence of under-trained workers within their craft angered many journeymen, as did other changes within their labor environment. As work customs changed to meet new market obligations, such as fewer breaks, more oversight, less autonomy at work, and decreased wages, journeymen perceived their interests diverging from that of their masters, and they began to doubt their ability to climb the artisanal ladder. Such changes strained the relationship between masters and journeymen. Perceiving master artisans as no longer producing for a community, fulfilling their paternal obligations, or striving to reach “competence,” journeymen came to view their master’s intentions as a threat to the social and economic order of society and at odds with the true and moral intentions of labor.

A color illustration of Carpenter's Hall, a two-story red brick Georgian-style meeting hall topped by a white cupola and a large American flag. It is surrounded by a wall and the area around it is still forested.

Carpenters’ Hall was built for the Carpenters’ Company, an artisan guild and the oldest extant trade guild in the nation. Shortly after it opened in 1774, it was the headquarters of the First Continental Congress. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

The first sign of dissension emerged in 1786 during one of the nation’s first strikes—the first recorded strike in Philadelphia’s history—as journeymen printers went on strike against employers refusing to pay a weekly rate of six dollars. Further divisions became apparent during the 1788 Federal Procession, which honored the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, when at least two trades marched in separate companies, one of master artisans and one of journeymen. By the 1790s early labor disputes between these two groups sprung up in a number of crafts, including carpenters in 1791 and cabinetmakers in 1795. Tensions between these two groups continued after the turn of the century as revolutions in transportation, communication, and industrialization greatly expanded the market economy well beyond Philadelphia, giving priority, in the eyes of journeymen, to the market over the moral intentions of craft labor.

While artisans played a significant role in crafting Philadelphia’s colonial and pre-Revolutionary economic and social history, divisiveness within artisanal ranks also played a large role in shaping Philadelphia’s post-Revolutionary history. As markets continued to expand throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the divide between master artisans and journeymen grew. Many master artisans left the workshop and became simply business owners, merchants, and entrepreneurs. Journeymen continued to toil in the workplace, but it was as wage laborers, and work was most likely performed at a machine and no longer at a workbench. As friction between these two developed into the 1820s journeymen laborers responded with the formation of trades unions and political parties to fight their cause, which set up a nearly thirty-year period of labor and class unrest within Philadelphia.

Patrick Grubbs is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who is writing his dissertation entitled “The Duty of the State: Policing the State of Pennsylvania from the Coal and Iron Police to the Establishment of the Pennsylvania State Police Force, 1866 – 1905.” He has been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011.

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Bernstein, Leonard. “The Working People of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the General Strike of 1835.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 74, No.3 (July 1950): 322-39.

Caric, Ric Northrup. “’To Drown the Ills That Discompose the Mind’: Care, Leisure, and Identity Among Philadelphia Artisans and Workers, 1785 – 1840.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Autumn 1997): 465-89.

Klepp, Susan. “Demography in Early Philadelphia, 1690 – 1860.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No. 2, Symposium on the Demographic History of the Philadelphia Region, 1600 – 1860 (June 1989): 85-111.

Laurie, Bruce. Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

Laurie, Bruce. Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Olton, Charles. Artisans of Independence: Philadelphia Mechanics and the American Revolution. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1975.

Salinger, Sharon V. “Artisans, Journeymen, and the Transformation of Labor in Late Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1 (January 1983): 62-84.

Schultz, Ronald. The Republic of Labor: Philadelphia Artisans and the Politics of Class, 1720 – 1830. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Schultz, Ronald. “The Small-Producer Tradition and the Moral Origins of Artisan Radicalism in Philadelphia, 1720 – 1810.” Past & Present, No. 127 (May 1990): 84-116.

Warner Jr., Sam Bass. The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of its Growth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

Places to Visit

Elfreth’s Alley and Elfreth’s Alley Museum, 124-26 Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia.

Franklin’s Print Shop, 320 Market Street, Philadelphia.

One Comment Comments

  1. Thank you for this essay on artisans in early Philadelphia. We forget that in the 18th century every article of clothing you wore, every stick of furniture you sat on and every tool you used was mostly hand made by an artisan.

    One observation, however. The word “journeyman” and comments like “becoming a master artisan was a long and difficult process that started early in a boy’s life,”can ignore the role that female artisans played in the city’s economic life. For instance, Mary Smith and Sarah Milton, the women who lived in what is now the museum house on Elfreth’s Alley, were skilled mantua makers, who employed apprentices of their own. A few years after them, there were also two female shoemakers living and working on the Alley. Finally, the most iconic female artisan in Philadelphia was, of course, Betsy Griscom Ross, who was apprenticed to an upholsterer for several years, before opening her own business with her husband and fellow apprentice, John Ross.

    To the journeymen AND journeywomen of Philadelphia, I say “Huzzah!”

    Bob Posted October 19, 2016 at 11:53 am

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