WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
Anybody remember “Job Day” at school, where parents would visit and speak to the class about their occupations? Depending on where you lived, you might hear things like “doctor”, “construction worker”, “writer”, or “hot-shot-CEO”. (Kidding on that last one.) But did you ever hear things like “My dad is a shoemaker!” or “My mommy owns an apothecary and sometimes performs surgery on people!”? Most likely not. That’s because as America has grown, and our culture and demands have shifted, the labor needed to keep a society functioning has evolved, too. Today, we’re going to take a look at a couple of essential American jobs from when our country first began, and compare them with how they’re done today!
In Colonial America, the needs of the affluent consumers were simple: medicine, gigantic horse-hair wigs, and papers to read, to name a few. While everyone needed something - food, clothes, healthcare - few could afford to actually BUY the goods or services they needed instead of trading for or making it themselves. That’s why the majority of colonial people were working class, and hard-working at that. The most common jobs at the time were exactly what you’d expect…with a few twists. Remember how I made a joke about Mommy owning an apothecary and also being a surgeon? I’ll bet you thought I was just hilarious. Well, all comedy is rooted in truth, and mine is no exception.
If you owned an apothecary in the time of early 1800’s America, you also were most likely knowledgeable enough in the human body to not only provide medicines and cures for various ailments, but to also perform minor surgeries if the local doctor had his hands full. As quoted from mrnussbaum.com,
“Apothecaries, and the practice of medicine in general in the 18th century, focused on the symptoms of disease rather than the causes of the disease.” (13 Colonies Apothecary, Mr. N).
Since most apothecaries didn’t actually attend medical school and had gleaned their knowledge from apprenticeships or family members, they simply cured whatever issue was ailing the patient in the moment. Think blood-letting via leeches, removing tonsils or growths with a hot knife, or swallowing various chewed-up tree bark or herbs. I would also like to remind you, reader, that there was no such thing as anesthesia back then…maybe just some strong whiskey.
I don’t even think I have to explain that our medical system is extremely different today: while there are plenty of naturopathic healers out there, they aren’t legally allowed to slice just anyone up at their kitchen counter. Becoming a doctor in 21st-century America requires at least a decade of schooling and training, with licensed professors and universal anatomical teaching. And, while apothecaries of old charged varying fees to each of the customers they helped, they didn’t take an official salary. Compare that with the six-figure yearly salary of modern-day doctors!
Let’s examine another popular job, one that, like medicine, has remained relevant throughout history: journalism! For context about what was considered “the news”, let’s take a look at this definition from the American Antiquarian Society.
“Though no successful newspaper appeared in America in the seventeenth century, many of the publications of the Cambridge press and of the new commercial presses that emerged in Boston after 1675 were news oriented, in a particularly Puritan way….They [ministers] saw in human and natural events, just as they saw in the Bible, the handiwork of God. Therefore, almanacs, sermons, proclamations, obituaries, histories, and narratives often dealt with events that were considered “divine providences,” though today we would call them simply “the news”: droughts, epidemics, earthquakes, storms, shipwrecks, comets, untimely deaths, murders, executions, wars, witchcrafts, days of thanksgiving, and so on.”
With the early arrival of the printing press in the budding United States, the plentiful apprenticeship opportunities for young men, and the universal desire for knowledge of common events, magazines flourished right from the start. By the time of the American Revolution, there were thirty-odd newspapers in business! In 1780, there were approximately 4,000,000 million copies printed for a population of 3,660,000 - and in the context of history, midway through the Revolutionary War, there was quite a lot to say. Using the then-modern printing press, daily newspapers were typically one page printed front-and-back with articles comprised of a few sentences. Imagine cramming everything you needed to know - deaths during the war, battle updates, ads, opinions, and more - into one frail page each day!
It’s important to note that these stories were presented through a very religious lense - whereas today, finding a mainstream news outlet that voices non-secular ideas as its main agenda is rare. According to a 2020 estimation, there were about 25,000,000 physical newspapers in circulation, most of them secular gossip or mainstream doomsday outlets. And that doesn’t include any e-news sites!
I want to take a look at one last occupation that remains a core part of society, expression, and just being appropriate to leave the house: seamstresses! Interestingly enough - though not unsurprisingly - the workforce of women that made the jackets, trousers, and shirts to send to the tailors’ is not very well recorded in history books. You see, everyone needed clothes, and almost every woman could sew. I imagine most seamstresses were taken for granted, viewed as a prop on the set of society; when in actuality, they were a cog in the machine of basic necessity.
Sewing was a simple and convenient job for women of all kinds. After all, the only tools needed were a needle and thread and fabric, the latter of which was usually provided by the customer; and often, seamstresses were commissioned to refashion an existing piece of clothing. Sewing could also be done wherever there was light and a place to sit - so for nimble young girls and struggling married women alike, it was an easily-managed task. And while young men had all sorts of apprenticeships to choose from (blacksmithing, printing, fishing, welding, medicine, etcetera), there were extremely limited opportunities for working women in the infancy of the United States. For poor families, sewing was a handy task a girl could learn in apprenticeship, provide money for her family, and begin a life outside of the home. The conditions at each of these seam houses varied. Of course, we know apprenticeship was rarely a joyful ordeal, especially for children being thrust out of their homes out of pure necessity. But there isn’t a great deal of record on what the working day was like for an apprenticed young girl, so I can only make assumptions. (Personal note: I just read a terrifying book called The Poison Thread by Laura Purcell. It was [THANKFULLY] a historical fiction book about a young girl who was an apprentice to a hatmaker in the early 1800’s. The conditions she worked under were bleak, abusive, and poverty-ridden. I imagine that sort of thing happened fairly often, because young women were simply not given a voice to speak up for themselves. There was no Labor Union back then.)
The extent of the job depended on what sort of place they lived in. In bigger towns and cities, there was also a tailor. That meant the women simply had to make seams, hem articles of clothing, and sew the bare bones of an outfit to be sent on for personal tailoring and design. But if it was a small town, they would sew the whole thing, from hemming to embroidery, themselves! If you’ve ever sewn something, you’ll know it’s no quick task, even with a sharp eye and electric sewing machine. Thus, though seamstresses often worked in teams in order to have a quick turnaround for clients, you can understand that there was absolutely no such thing as “fast fashion”.
Nowadays, the fashion industry looks drastically different in lots of ways - but the same in others. After the Industrial Revolution, when companies began to make commercial use of the sewing machine, there was a massive shift in the fashion industry. The tides turned from your grandma sewing dresses for your community in her living room, to thousands of women working long hours in a factory to mass-produce clothing to sell, profit, and reproduce at a rapid pace. The trend continues to today: major fashion companies exploit cheap labor of women in third-world countries, because they will get the job done quickly and well and don’t have a voice to demand better rights. Like Colonial women, they sew because it’s an easy job, because it pays (just) enough to live on, and because it’s one of the only opportunities they have. Most likely, when you need a dress for an upcoming event, or a t-shirt for warmer weather, or a new pair of socks, you’re not going to call your local tailor and commission them to make it for you - you can simply run to the store and buy whatever you need, and often for cheap! That’s because somewhere, a company has just cranked out thousands of shirts exactly like that for an extremely low price, and are able to re-sell them and make a profit back on the dirt-cheap labor they make use of. This isn’t always the case, however! There are many small, specialty boutiques that make good quality clothes with affordable and healthy labor. They do what fast fashion does not: they make clothes mindfully. One such company is Taylor Stitch, a sustainable, authentic American clothing brand. Something I love about them is their mission to build a community of responsibility; a community that recognizes the dangerous habits of fast fashion and works to find a better way to make clothes that inspires the consumer and aids our environment. (To learn about their mission to create clothes that give back, visit Responsibility Built For The Long Haul To Protect Wild, Forever!)
I could go on forever. As we can see, humans have had the same needs all throughout history, but the ways in which we satisfy those needs have changed. As our patience shortens, our voices grow, and our money spreads, our jobs evolve. Many of us, especially those from immigrant ancestors, have stories to tell about working in appalling conditions to provide for the economy. We also have stories of lessons learned, connections made, and roots planted in each industry of the American economic machine. What do you know about your family history in medicine, journalism, fashion, or others? How have those skills and stories been passed on to you? Does it affect your life and livelihood today? And how important is it to keep connected to those roots?