May 9

The proprietor of the Northern Whig of Hudson, New York engaged this day in 1809 in a controversy with the local postmaster over the employment of an apprentice to fetch the mail, the postmaster demanding a written order from the editor upon each occasion that the boy appeared in his post office.

The poor apprentice of the period who was engaged by a country printer as often as not found life exceedingly difficult. Service as an errand boy was just one of the seemingly infinite responsibilities laid upon his shoulders. He had to sweep out the office, keep the fire going in the winter by chopping wood or carrying in the coal, and of course he must deliver the weekly newspaper to its customers.

Practically every printer, however, who survived such an apprenticeship during the 19th century spoke later of his ordeal somewhat nostalgically. Lewis G. Hoffman, who served under Jesse Buel at Albany, told of the most onerous task allotted to him, that of “treading pelts,” or preparing the skins to be used on the ink balls:

“A Pelt was a dried sheepskin, divested of the wool, immersed in the slop pail until well soaked, then taken out, rinsed by hand of the surface water, as far as practicable, for treading. It was then rolled up in old newspapers and rolled under the foot, changing the papers as was required until every particle of moisture was expunged from it, which rendered the skin as pliable and soft as a lady’s glove. Then it was in order for a Printer’s ball. Treading out a pair of skins was an epoch in a printer’s devil’s life which he will always remember until odor is lost in forgetfulness!’

Hoffman also mentioned the fact that “the eight hour system was not then in vogue!’ He wrote, “In winter we ate breakfast by candlelight, took dinner at 12 (except publication days), supper at 6, returned to the office, and set type until 9.”

Sometimes the apprentice found conditions to his liking, and his employer an understanding man anxious to teach the craft properly, but generally he could not expect “home” treatment once he had been bound. Edwin Scrantom, apprentice to A.G. Dauby, the pioneer printer of Rochester, New York, recalled “the rough box, or bunk, that was rigged up on the floor under one of the counters, for this was the sleeping room for the apprentices—two of us—and coming to this scanty provision, as I did, from a bed that my mother had always in her love provided . . . the contrast was so great . . . that it brought homesickness, sighing and tears.”

There was little agreement concerning the wages a boy could earn during his apprenticeship, over and above board. Fifty dollars per year could be considered adequate, although some masters stipulated that the payment vary during each year of the apprenticeship, in most instances a period of five years. Although learning the “art and mystery” of printing was deemed a sufficient liberal education for a boy, a few masters allowed their apprentices to attend school during their first period of indenture, but this was not a common practice. That printing did actually provide a liberal education is borne out by the many distinguished men whose only education was that of the apprenticeship to a printer.

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