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Educating the Youth of Pennsylvania: Apprentices in the Age of Franklin

Seeking, and finding, a job or career is a top priority for many teens and young adults in today’s world. In this respect, the young people of the 18th century were no different, although their options were more limited and the paths they chose were often set at a very young age. With formal schooling at colleges and academies usually available only to the wealthy or middle classes, many children as young as 12 years of age were expected to pursue a professional apprenticeship with an established tradesman or craftsman.

Questions about how they made these choices, the consequences of those choices, and about the multifaceted relationships among apprentices and masters will be addressed in the following sources and exercises. This lesson asks students to use primary and secondary sources as well as draw upon their own experiences and opinions to explore the specialized role of apprentices in Franklin’s time.


18th century

Colonial period


Big Ideas

Historical Context

Pennsylvania History

Essential Questions

  • Historical literacy requires a focus on time and space, and an understanding of the historical context of events and actions.

  • Historical causation involves motives, reasons, and consequences that result in events and actions.Some consequences may be impacted by forces of the irrational or the accidental.

  • Historical comprehension involves evidence-based discussion and explanation, an analysis of sources including multiple points of view, and an ability to read critically to recognize fact from conjecture and evidence from assertion.


  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.

  • State and local history can offer an individual, discerning judgment in public and personal life, supply examples for living, and thinking about one’s self in the dimensions of time and space.

  • Biography is a historical construct used to reveal positive and/or negative influences an individual can have on Pennsylvania’s society.


  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

  • Contrast multiple perspectives of individuals and groups in interpreting other times, cultures, and place.

  • Synthesize a rationale for the study of individuals in Pennsylvania history.

Background Material for Teacher

End of Unit Assessment

Summative writing assignment

Part I:   Ask the students to construct a short creative writing assignment stepping into the shoes of these 18th century apprentices like Roberts and Franklin.
The writing prompt: What kind of apprentice would you have been? What would be the conditions of your indenture? Describe the work you would have done.

Part II:  Have students consider their own life in contrast to the apprenticeship system.  Writing prompt:  How do you think differently about your life today now that you understand the apprenticeship program of the past?


Plans in this Unit

Apprenticeship in the Eighteenth Century

Franklin vs. Roberts: Experiences as an Apprentice

Grade Level

Middle School

High School

Standards/Eligible Content





8.3.8.A & C

PA Core Standards







About the Author

This unit was created by Laura Beardsley.  Modified and updated for SAS by Kimberly L. Parsons, Education Intern, and Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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