Guild records are referred to in German by a variety of different names: Zunft, Innung, and Gilde. These records are extraordinarily important and significant to researchers who have difficulty uncovering more about their family’s history due to the loss of records in the Second World War. Guilds were established to regulate trade, provide benefits to its members, and take care of its members’ families after death, very similar to today’s unions and insurance companies.

There are several different types of guild records that are of specific interest to genealogists. According to FamilySearch:

“Guild records are of many types, including master, journeyman and apprenticeship letters, Kinderbücher, lists of guild members, family lists, letters of recommendation, and birth documents. Such records will include names, sometimes birth dates, dates of guild-related events, work history information, and/or names of former bosses. The Kinderbücher are of special interest. They were kept to prove that children were offspring of guild members and citizens so that they could receive guild advantages later in life. They can also serve as useful records if the usual vital records are not available.”

Entry into a guild began when a father paid a fee to apprentice his son to a master. To qualify, the child needed to be of legitimate birth and of good social standing. This usually took place between the ages of ten and fifteen, and the fee was known as Lehrgeld. A written contract would exist to declare the terms of the apprenticeship. The apprentice would then learn routines and procedures from the master over the course of three to seven years. The student would not be permitted to receive money for his work, but was compensated with food, lodging, and training by the master with whom he lived. Apprentices were also supposed to be unmarried, childless, and having no prior debts or obligations. Records from this stage included apprenticeship letters, registers of apprentices, and apprentice books.

When the apprentice fully learned the trade, he would be promoted to a journeyman (Geselle). He would then travel from village to village in search of masters to learn from, known as the Wanderjahre. In this way, he would learn different techniques from other masters to perfect his craft. A journeyman in Gesellschaft would not be permitted to employ his own workers and would work underneath other masters in the guild. Accompanying the journeyman would be his newly furnished Lehrbrief and Wanderbuch. The Lehrbrief would contain the name of his father and the name of the master who apprenticed him, attesting to his years of apprenticeship. The Wanderbuch would act as his passport, containing physical descriptions and pages for the local authorities to stamp.

Journeymen could become stuck in that phase of their career for many years. Each guild imposed limits on each community for how many members of the same profession could work in any given area. This was to lessen competition and ensure work for their members. To reach the status of a master, one would have to complete a masterpiece (Meisterstück) that would be judged by the masters of the guild. However, as limits were imposed, one could live his entire life without obtaining the status of being a master. Consequently, journeymen could find work in other villages or they would have to wait until a master retired or died. Only after being appointed as a master could the guild member open up his own shop, train apprentices, and employ labor.

Important to the concept of being in a guild, members would want to document their children’s legitimate birth. This would ensure all guild rights transferred to their children, including guild help to the family if the worker died prematurely. Children of a guild member would also have the documentation necessary to be apprenticed themselves. Similar to church books, Kinderbücher were used to keep track of births.

For further reading about German occupations, guilds, and social stratification, the articles below provide more specific information about how guilds operated and examples of life for different classes of people.