Learning a Trade in 18th Century Virginia

Learning a Trade in 18th Century Virginia
Martha Jefferson: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: Two to three class periods


Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was born in 1748 in Charles City County, Virginia, not far from Williamsburg.  Although her father was an attorney and a landowner, she was part of the gentry class, and was raised—as were many girls of her social class—to have the skills needed by a “lady of quality.”  Most children, however, were raised to follow a trade—to be able to make goods that were needed by members of the community on a daily basis.  Thus, even young children were put to work alongside tradesmen and tradeswomen, who taught them the skills of the trade.


Students who participate in this activity will investigate what was involved in learning a trade in 18th century Williamsburg by selecting a trade, researching the nature of the trade, and estimating how long it would take to learn that particular trade.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; notebook and pencil or pen.


1.  To introduce the lesson, discuss with students the meaning of the word, “trade” as a skilled practice or occupation (see definition #6, and examples in #4, below).  Talk about some of the tradespeople with whom students may be familiar, such as carpenters, plumbers, carpet layers, or electricians.
2.  Then, using the Colonial Williamsburg site listed below, ask each student to select a trade from the 20 that are listed, and research it by clicking on the name of the trade.  Students may also browse the larger site, looking for examples of the practice of the trade they selected (there are a number of slide shows and other resources on the site, including KidZone).  Students should take notes on their research for a later essay.

When each student has done his or her research, assign them a short paper that begins with the following prompt:
You are eight years old and live in Colonial Williamsburg.  You are old enough now to begin learning a trade, so that you will be able to earn a living when you grow up.  You have chosen to learn the _______________ trade.  Describe what knowledge and skills you will need to learn and how long you think it will probably take.  Include in your essay answers to the following questions:
·        In order to be accomplished in this trade, will you need to know how to read?
·        In order to be accomplished in this trade, will you need to know arithmetic?
·        What difficulties do you foresee in learning this trade?
·        What strengths and interests do you have that will help you learn this trade?
3.  When the papers are complete, provide an opportunity for students to share them with the class, and perhaps display them in a special place in the classroom.
4.  As a concluding activity, discuss with students the differences between learning a trade in the 18th century and learning one today.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by making it a part of a larger unit on life and work in the Virginia colony, or in the colonies in general.

Sources & Resources:


Carlson, Laurie.  Colonial Kids: An Activity Guide to Life in the New World. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1997.
King, David C. Colonial Days: Discover the Past with Fun Projects, Games, Activities, and Recipes.  Jossey-Bass, 1997.


Definition of a Trade As An Occupation

The Trades in Colonial Williamsburg


This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.