In 20th-century fantasies about the economy of the Middle Ages, the relationship between master and apprentice in the crafts is thought to be idyllic. The fine printer, silversmith, carpenter, builder or weaver, in command of all the skills of his trade, would over a period of time unselfishly convey the art and mysteries of his trade to indentured, eager apprentices. In the fullness of time, these became journeymen, then masters and teachers. So continuity of skills was guaranteed while the lives of both apprentices and masters were enriched in the relationship. Or so we thought.

W.J. Rorabaugh's scholarly and well-documented book recounts the history of the craft apprentice's experience in America from the pre-Revolutionary times of Benjamin Franklin to the machine age after the Civil War. He demonstrates the decline of the apprentice system, examines the reasons for it, and proves that the system itself was full of hardships and inequities.

In the course of Rorabaugh's historical and sociological survey, he is able to show us "what it was like to be an apprentice, how the experience felt, the way it was shaped, and how over time the nature of the experience changed." Because so many literate boys were apprenticed to the printing arts, the best first-hand accounts -- on which the book is based -- come from them, beginning with that most successful American apprentice, Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, a poor boy apprenticed at 12 to his cousin, a cutler. All the forms of indenture were observed: signed papers, local registration, and (because it was a relative) no paid fee. Unhappy there, he was placed with his brother Joseph, a printer. While the conditions of work were not ideal (he was often given menial tasks to perform instead of craft-connected instruction), young Ben learned fast. Two years later, when his brother published a newspaper in Boston, Ben arranged to have his anonymous contributions printed. At 17, fully trained, he decided to escape the unhappy conditions of his work and ran away to Philadelphia where, rapidly, he became the most famous printer and publisher of his time. He entered politics, started his profitable inventions and public services, and retired, a rich man, at 42.

His was the prototype for many other apprentices for whom the conditions of indenture, as described in their letters home, were often more difficult to escape. They wrote about the absolute tyranny of their masters, about the difficult living conditions within the master's home, the servile lives they led, and the tensions created by competition among the other apprentices. For the successful few whose later lives in the printing trades seemed to justify the trials of learning their craft -- Joel Munsell, Isaiah Thomas and others -- there were many others for whom the experience was disastrous.

In the 1830s, as the practice was beginning its decline because of the rise of public education, the myth of the desirability of traditional practical experience remained, especially for apprentices and the sons of skilled craftsmen working for their fathers. Libraries were established to extend the general education of apprentices. But the economy was changing rapidly and with it the nature of employment for youths. Large- scale manufacturing threatened the small crafts, immigration flooded the cities: "In a society in which crafts were gradually being mechanized, the need for apprentices was low, and masters naturally preferred to take educated, disciplined children of the artisan classes rather than street waifs."

By the time of the 1837 Depression "in trade after trade the pressures of a national market and the introduction of machinery pushed craftsmen into unemployment." Rorabaugh carries his story to the last signs of "the lingering tradition," in the age of slavery, during which the master was the planter, the apprentice a slave-artisan. The relationship was absolute and occasionally paternal. Here the black artisan also had the problem of other white artisans. Frederick Douglass was apprenticed to a caulker. White shipyard workers beat him up and threatened "to knock his brains out" if he remained on the job.

This absorbing and illuminating history of an institution's decline ends with the story of Sam Clemens whose strong family ties kept him a journeyman-printer until the excitement and monetary rewards of river-boat piloting lured him away. Many apprentices enlisted in the Civil War. Apprentices made in the mold of Ben Franklin, as Rorabaugh points out, were now cast more in the shape of Horatio Alger, ambitios and independent. The idea of advancement and learning through apprenticeship gave way to the slow and uncertain progress of the unskilled laborer. The unrealistic romance of a vision of skilled and contented artisans carrying on the arcane traditions of a craft was at an end.