Based on an Essay by Howard B. Rock

Artisan societies were an important element of the civic, fraternal and economic lives of many craftsmen living in nineteenth century America. They functioned as benevolent societies providing benefits to those in need because of illness, injury, death or other misfortune; and as sources of fraternity where fellow mechanics could meet, dine, wine and march with their comrades, celebrating the significance of their trade and the blessings of republican government. In addition, societies, if organized by the masters, could look out for their trade in such areas as tariff protection and craft promotion as well as respond to the demands of their journeymen; or, if organized by the journeymen, could maintain wages, hours and work traditions that would guarantee their status even if they were unable to attain master craftsman standing.

The origins of American artisan societies lie in England.  In the eleventh and twelfth centuries artisans organized religious fraternities centering around the patron saint of their craft. They would worship together on their saint’s day and other holidays at a specific church. They also provided death benefits and fraternal outlets through religious services and burials.

Crown or municipal recognition gave the societies a monopoly within their professions. No artisan who was not a freeman (journeyman) of the society could ply his trade in the marketplace except after payment of burdensome taxes. Generally only those who had served a seven year apprenticeship were admitted to freemanship, and admission to apprenticeship in the more prestigious crafts could be costly. The journeymen and apprentices were organized in each craft as it best suited the interest of the masters.  The societies were allowed to “search” the city’s shops in their particular trades to ensure that the quality of the products sold were up to their standards and to prosecute those who violated these standards or who used fraudulent weights and measures.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the religious orientation had nearly disappeared, yet the associations continued to flourish. While maintaining their functions as sources of benevolence and enhancing their comradely activities with the erection of halls, some quite elaborate, they became significant economic institutions. They were able to control both the quality of their product and the prices and wages within their craft, either through royal incorporation, the preferred and most prestigious route, or through municipal ordinance.

The masters, the livery or “livened” members of a society, more often than not, were retailers and wholesalers rather than as handicraftsmen. Beneath them in the society were independent proprietors of smaller shops and the “yeomen” or journeymen who could never reach livery status. At times the yeomen would organize independently within the society because their interests were so clearly different from those of the livery.

These differences would be harbingers of the conflicts to come during the Industrial Revolution.

Guilds were actually the “first and original basis for the theory and practice of popular democratic government in Europe” and the first to give worker organizations a role in the polity.3

4 Guild & State: European Political Thought from the Twelfth Century to the Present. Antony Black, p. xvii