This historical study aims to explain how the transition from student nurse service to fully qualified "graduate nurse" service in the United States in the 20th century affected assumptions about fundamental patient care in hospital wards and provide historical context for current apprenticeship programs. Through analysis of documents from 1920 when student nurse service, a nurse apprentice model, was the norm to 1960 when the nurse apprentice model was waning in favor of registered nurse service, this study found that the replacement of student nurses with registered nurses led to weakened standardization of fundamental bedside care and the introduction of large numbers of unlicensed nursing assistants. While student nurses could perform all the functions of fully qualified graduate nurses, nursing assistants could not, resulting in a separation of fundamental nursing care from the professional nurse role and changes in assumptions and attitudes toward fundamental care. These changes had a negative effect on fundamental nursing care. New apprenticeship programs provide opportunities for improvement. © 2022 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.