Training Craftsmen: The R.R. Donnelley Apprentice Program

In 1908, RR Donnelley developed a program that would become a model for the rest of the printing industry and serve as an important step toward meeting America's need for industrial training.

The School for Apprentices was the creation of T. E. Donnelley, who was inspired by a similar endeavor that a leading French printing firm, Imprimerie Chaix, had founded in 1863. T. E. appointed Edward E. Sheldon to organize the school; Sheldon had headed the Webster Training School in Omro, Wisconsin, and was well-versed in modern teaching techniques. RR Donnelley developed its own textbooks for the school as well as a series of course texts called "Printing Practices" on topics such as prepress, practical composition, elementary photoengraving, cylinder pressmanship, and case binding.

The school admitted boys between 14 and 16 years of age with a grammar-school diploma and "special promise and ability." Students entered a rigorous seven-year course consisting of "craftsmanship combined with cultural studies," beginning with a pre-apprentice program of two years, divided equally between the classroom and the factory. In addition to mathematics, English, design, arts, science, civics, reading, and language, pre-apprentice students were also introduced to proofreading, typesetting, pressmanship, engraving, and binding. This was followed by a five-year apprenticeship comprising full-time factory work under master craftsmen. Apprentices received $5 per week (pre-apprentices started at $2.40 a week) and most of the benefits of regular employment, as well as two weeks of paid vacation.

In 1915 the first graduating class of apprentices boasted twenty-four members. By 1933 the company had matriculated a total of 354 journeyman printers. Armed with a diploma and journeyman's certificate, all the graduates were assured lifetime employment. They automatically became employees of RR Donnelley, and were also sought after by other printing establishments. Nonetheless, the appeal of the home company remained strong, and in 1928, twenty years after the school's founding, over eighty percent of its graduates were still working for RR Donnelley.

Photograph of apprentices

[1913].
R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company Archive.

Photograph of apprentices

[1915].
R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company Archive.

Apprentice School holiday greeting card.

R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company Archive.