The Journeyman


The Journeyman Smith

What is a journeyman smith?

The first time that I remember hearing the term journeyman applied to any particular trade was about twenty-nine years ago, at which time I was quite a youth. The word was employed at the end of every verse of a somewhat lengthy song, called the “Journeyman Tailor.” The real meaning of the word, or why it was applied to trades, became to me a vast and not over lucid problem.

Feeling anxious to learn its exact meaning, I applied to my maternal author for a definition of the term. After receiving the answer, that it applied to all tradesmen or mechanics that had finished their apprenticeship, I felt as much enlightened as before.

The word journey, I knew, related to travel; the combination only was a puzzle. How a carpenter, or smith, or tailor, with steady employment and a permanent domicil, should be styled or called a traveling mechanic, was more than my comprehension could fathom. To arrive at the solution of this problem was ever my great aim. Numberless times have I asked of master mechanics its true meaning, and in the end invariably found myself no wiser than before.

In 1852, after having entered upon the third year of my apprenticeship, it became my duty to help a German smith, and excellent mechanic, but unable to utter a word of English, or to comprehend anything mentioned to him in the same language. In order to be able to understand each other, we commenced the task of teaching each other our native languages, and in a measure we succeeded.

While conversing with him in German upon the German method of constructing vehicles, the German apprenticeship system, and other matters relating to the trade, I was successful in finding a clue which I felt quite certain would lead me to the proper solution of the great apprenticeship problem.

He mentioned that, while he was a “Handwerks-Bursch,” of having stopped a certain length of time in Berlin. Handwerks-Bursch was to me so much Greek. After giving my friend to understand that I would like to know the literal meaning of the term, he told me that it meant a traveling mechanic. Following up on my clue, I finally came to the solution of the problem that had troubled my brain for the preceding eleven years, which is about as follows:

Until the last few years, it was imperative, in German countries, and in the majority of other European countries, upon every person, after he had finished his apprenticeship and before entering into business on his own account, to spend a certain number of years in traveling in other countries, or in different sections of his own country, that he might become acquainted with the different methods of working, and thereby perfect himself and become competent to enter into business on his own account.

The term applies to single men only, working for other persons. As soon as he enters into business he is termed (in German parlance) “Meister,” or “Werke-Meister.” If he becomes married and does not establish himself in business, but works for another person, the term “Handwerks-Bursch,” or traveling mechanic, does not apply to his calling any longer. He is looked upon as an inferior workman, and is termed a “Sack-Reise” [the literal translation of “sack” in this case applies to household effects], or in English, “a botch,” a man that is encumbered, etc. The meaning of the term may be measurably altered by emphasizing or taking from.

The foregoing system, once in vogue throughout all European countries, is fast dying out, and at present exists in but one or two German Provinces. The old terms all falling into disuse, and in some of the German States have become obsolete—the terms used at present signify a learned smith, carpenter, or tailor, having a greater amount of significance, and are in the ascendency.

In conclusion, your humble servant would say, that until the term “journeyman” becomes obsolete (that is, so far as relates to the mechanic of this enlightened country), and the proper term, Master Mechanic, supersedes it, that the writer will remain as equally dissatisfied as he was prior to his learning the exact or literal meaning of the word journeyman in its present application.
New York, Oct. 31, 1870.

We were glad to receive this article, because it contains some interesting remarks about the life of European mechanics, and we wish that our contributor would tell us something more about it. But we cannot agree with him in his explanations of the origin of the word journeyman. According to Webster, journeyman signifies a man hired to work by the day, a day-laborer, and this is, no doubt, the correct meaning. The common word journey, from the French word jour, a day, signified, originally, not travel, but the travel of a day, or all that was done in one day, and thus journeyman has nothing to do with the modern signification of journey, travel, but only with the primitive one, day-work. Originally, thersfore, a journeyman smith was one who labored, and was paid, by the day.                                                                                                                         Ed.

The New York Coach-Maker’s Magazine – December, 1870



Its Continuation and Conclusion

“Those that are bound must obey.”

The writer, fortunately, belongs to that class that is generally favored with constant employment, and in consequence he is bound to obey the injunctions of his employers, and to render to them sufficient duties in office, that they may be satisfied that they are not paying him for services not performed. And on the other hand, the duties of your humble servant are such that much of his time beyond the regular ten hours per diem has to be devoted to the furtherance of the interests of his employers, and moreover, from the rapid strides of progress and improvement which are every day taking place in the art of Coach-making, some little time must be spent in his own culture, in order that he may keep pace with the present age of progress.

Therefore he has no time to devote to controversies, and furthermore, his chances of obtaining an education sufficient to enable him to enter into any controversy have ever been too limited; but in all his pen and ink sketches he will endeavor to use as pure English as possible, and will spare no pains to make all his problems as lucid as possible, in order that those, who may have labored under the same disadvantages that he has, may be able to understand his exact meaning.

In writing a previous article, termed “Journeyman Smith,” I sought, by brevity and as plain language as I could use, to find why the term journeyman was applied to mechanics that had served their regular term of apprenticeship—not the modern application, but the primitive one.

My esteemed and good friend, the Editor, fails to agree with me, and requests by particular favor to hear from me again on the subject. In compliance with the request I now embrace the few moments that are lying about loose to continue and conclude all that I have to say on the subject.

I have known for years that the French word jour (pronounced zhoor), translated to English, means day or light; that journée (pronounced zhoorna), means all that transpires in a day, viz., the day’ s light, the day’ s heat, the day’s toil, the day’s profit, the day’s travel, etc. And I have every reason to believe that the English word journey is taken from the French word journée.

But all this in no way tends towards telling us why the term journeyman was first applied to the mechanics.

Farm laborers, clerks, drivers, etc., have never been complimented with the term. Their labor is done in the day; then why not employ the same term in speaking of them? Because their duties being ever the same, there was nothing to be learned that could not be learned at home, hence what use had they in “journeying, strange lands and things to see.”

The writer has frequently heard, in by-gone days, many and different ballads, all having for their theme the “journeyman.” One verse was about as follows.

“East and West I did journey,
Strange towns and cities for to see,
I journeyed up, I journeyed down
Until I came to fair Lunnun town.”

As mentioned in the preceding article, it was the custom in all European countries for the young mechanic, after he had completed his apprenticeship, to spend a certain number of years in traveling in other or foreign parts. The terms applied in the different countries to these persons are about as follows.

In England, on his first round, he is called a journeyman, or young tramp, or tramp, or stager, from the fact of his having to move so far in each day. The whole country being laid out in stages or day’s journeys, at certain towns he has the privilege of remaining longer than at others. He has the privilege of making two or three stages or journeys in a day, and receives a competence from each one. If he obtains or takes employment, he is considered as being done for the present with journeying or tramping, and is called a smith, tailor, etc., according to his profession, which he enjoys until he again starts on his meanderings, the term journeyman being rarely if ever applied while in constant employment.

Some mechanics rarely perform more than twelve weeks’ work in the year, and are always on the move, and are termed old tramps or old stagers, and such is their knowledge of the country that they can travel two years without visiting the same place twice.

In France the custom was the same, but has of late years been dying out. The terms applied there are, when traveling, ouvrier voyageur: a traveling workman or a young mechanic on his tour of learning or perfecting himself in his trade. When in employment, he is called compagnonnage forgeron (smith), or if a carriage-maker or wheeler, compagnonnage charron.

In German countries, he is first called ein Handwerksbursch auf Reise: a young Handwerker on his travels, or a young mechanic traveling to finish his trade. When spoken of by those at home, it is said, er reist in der Fremde: he is traveling among stranger, or is journeying to finish his trade. While he is in employment he is called Geselle: companion, or smith companion, or body-maker companion, etc. After he is done with traveling, and is about or contemplates establishing himself in business, he is called ein reisender Geselle, and reisender Arbeiter: traveled companion, or learned companion, or traveled workman, or learned workman, smith, etc.

Believing that I have quoted enough to make myself directly understood, I will now conclude the subject by saying that I believe, from what has been set forth, that the term journeyman was first applied to mechanics because of their having to travel or journey after having finished their apprenticeship.

What the modern meaning of the term may be is no concern of mine, nor do I question Messrs. Webster, Walker, or Johnson, as to whether they are right or wrong; but since writing my first essay upon the subject, I have convened a number of learned mechanics of the art of Coach-Making, and after conversing upon the different terms in use in Europe, reading the article appearing in the December number of the Magazine, and the editor’s note attached, I asked them their views as to which was correct.

After an hour’s controversy upon the subject, during which English, French, and German Dictionaries were examined and quoted, it was voted that the author of Journeyman was correct, as was also the esteemed editor, so far as related to his quotation from Webster.

Then, if both are right, why should the subject be continued any longer, when it will more materially enhance the value of the Magazine, and increase the knowledge of the craft, to devote valuable space to direct practical articles.

At some future time I shall endeavor to place before the patrons of my good friend, the editor, a full and complete statement of the customs of European Mechanics, which I believe will well pay for the reading.


The foregoing article is a most interesting one. The derivation of the word journeyman, as suggested by our correspondent, is argued by him most ingeniously, and he has brought forward in its support many facts with which we were unacquainted. If the facts mentioned by Mr. M. be correct (and at present we have no reason to doubt them), then the derivation mentioned by Webster is incorrect.
The writer of the following verses, which we picked up the other day, seems, however, to hold Webster’s idea of the primitive meaning of the word:

The Journeyman.

Working, working, hour by hour,
Through the morning’s chill and dew,
Through the sunshine and the shower,
Through the evening’s dusky blue.

Stone by stone is laid with care
In the river’s flowing tide;
Night comes on, the day is dead,
Labor must be laid aside.

Still no vision of the work
Peers to cheer the worker’s face;
Still the river darkly flows,
Not a ripple points the place.

Journeymen we are, and each
Has his portion in a day;
We must stop, and others come
When the hours have flown away.

What though some do all unseen,
There the depth may darker be,
There the sand may run less bright,
Or the tide more forcibly.

Working, working, hour by hour,
One shall see his labor done;
Working, working, just as nobly,
Many see it just begun.

The New York Coach-Maker’s Magazine – February 1871

—Jeff Burks

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9 Responses to The Journeyman

  1. Roger Hylr says:

    So, how did they get their equipment off of the porch roof? Roof used for storage or advertising?

  2. After reading this and being almost 150 years farther from the origin of the word, I’m just as confused as before.

    I’ve heard the explanation that a journeyman travelled around the country or countries to learn, but I’ve not heard any discussion of the logistics involved. While a guy could just wander around saying “hi I’m a journeyman. let me build ya something”, the guild system was a very private club, so this wouldn’t fly. This means there should be letters between masters to make arrangements, and contracts between masters and journeymen, etc to document that this stuff really happened.

  3. jenohdit says:

    I wonder what level of schooling a “mechanic” of that era would have achieved. It is striking how well that guy can write. Even if the editors cleaned things up a bit he wrote better than most of the college graduates that I know. I bet he even had nice handwriting.

  4. I have heard that the term Journeyman is derived from the French word journee (meaning day) because these workers were typically paid by the day.

  5. jlhall6676 says:

    I like their elevated showroom.

  6. When I hear Journeyman Smith, I think EverQuest.

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