Most common jobs 150 years ago

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September 28, 2020
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Most common jobs 150 years ago

Many of the jobs that made the U.S. economy in 1870 are still key today. A few have become obsolete because of industrial or technological improvements. Stable hands are still being hired but hostlers, who took care of arriving horses at an inn, are not. Similarly, coopers, the men and women who make and repair casks, are disappearing.

But some skills that were run-of-the-mill have become more valuable in our times. Handmade shoes, hand-rolled cigars, and hand-washed laundry are all luxuries in 2020.

The vast majority of jobs are familiar even if the way they are done has changed in the last 150 years. Physicians continue to heal though there have been enormous advances in the medical field. Lawyers and judges still wrestle with the legal system. The clergy bring spiritual comfort.

Many of the jobs entailed making or selling products, the activities that make the U.S. economy function. Some American bakeries are small and artisanal, but others are large corporations. Textile mills had died off but are making a comeback in some Southern cities though with fewer employees and more automation. The iron and steel industries are growing as the country builds.

The emphasis that Americans put on education can be seen in the 3.7 million public school teachers who are teaching this fall, either in their classrooms or virtually. And 1.5 million college faculty members will continue educating students when they graduate.

One of the biggest changes has been in the number of farms across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 6.8 million farms in 1935, but the number has dropped to about 2.05 million where it has stayed. The remaining farms are larger, about 444 acres in 2017, up from 155 acres in 1935.

Using the U.S. Census Bureau's report on 1870–1930 Comparative Occupation Statistics, Stacker compiled a list of jobs with the most employment in 1870. There were 110 jobs considered for the list, not including any occupations that said "all other" in their name, as these are vague groupings of jobs and it's unclear which workers were included in those employment numbers.

#50. Hostlers and stable hands

- Total employment in 1870: 17,865

Hostlers took care of horses belonging to people staying at an inn, while stablehands worked in stables, looking after the horses, exercising them, and cleaning equipment. No one rides up to a hotel on a horse these days, but stablehands are still in demand in racing and private stables. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019 the median annual wage for all animal caretakers was $24,780.

#49. Operatives and laborers (brick, tile, and terra-cotta factories)

- Total employment in 1870: 20,367

Brick, tile, and terra-cotta are still in use as building materials, but others would soon come into play as buildings got taller. The first skyscraper was erected between 1884 and 1885 in Chicago, the Home Insurance Building. Though its exterior was still brick, it had a steel frame. The use of brick has fallen from 15 billion a year in the early 1900s to 7 to 9 billion.

#48. Plasterers

- Total employment in 1870: 23,853

Plasterers apply plaster to walls and ceilings, but an alternative, drywall, was invented in 1916 by the United States Gypsum Corporation, and 20 billion square feet of panels are manufactured each year. Although it has the advantage of allowing for quick construction and is fire-resistant, it is less durable than plaster walls.

#47. Soldiers, sailors, and marines

- Total employment in 1870: 24,082

The American military is much larger in 2020, with about 1.3 million active-duty personnel. The branches in order of size: Army, Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. The newest addition to the armed forces is the U.S. Space Force.

#46. Barbers, hairdressers, and manicurists

- Total employment in 1870: 24,660

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 722,600 barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists in 2019. The median pay for barbers was $14.50 an hour.

#45. Operatives and laborers (marble and stone yards)

- Total employment in 1870: 25,925

The U.S. continues to produce marble and granite, more than 580,000 tons of granite and more than 55,000 tons of marble in 2016. The Vermont Danby marble quarry is the largest underground quarry in the world. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 4,310 rock splitters working in quarries in 2017.

#44. Hotel keepers and managers

- Total employment in 1870: 26,666

There were 57,200 lodging managers in 2019, making a median salary of $54,430 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The outlook for the future isn’t bright. Estimates are that the number of jobs will decline 12 percent to 2029 or 6,700 jobs.

#43. Fishermen and oystermen

- Total employment in 1870: 27,871

U.S. fisheries—from catching to selling the fish—created 1.7 million jobs and $212 billion in sales in 2016. Today’s workers must operate under fishery management plans to try to prevent overfishing. Forty-five federally managed fish stocks have been rebuilt in the last 20 years.

#42. Clerks (except in stores)

- Total employment in 1870: 29,801

There were nearly 3 million office clerks in the United States in 2019, making a mean annual wage of $36,360. Today they are working on computers and phones. In 1870, Congress voted to prohibit gender discrimination regarding pay for federal clerks. Many working women at the time were Civil War widows.

#41. Operatives and laborers (tanneries)

- Total employment in 1870: 30,918

American hide and skin companies today export 90% of their production, making the U.S. one of the top providers of raw material for the leather industry.

#40. Foresters, forest rangers, timber cruisers, lumbermen, raftsmen, and woodchoppers

- Total employment in 1870: 32,360

Today’s lumber industry operates 500 sawmills and other manufacturing facilities, creating about 750,000 jobs. Across the United States, there are 420 million acres of timberland.

#39. Operatives and laborers (harness and saddle factories)

- Total employment in 1870: 33,329

The Smith-Worthington Saddlery Co. in Connecticut has been making saddles since 1794, most certainly the oldest saddle maker in the country, according to a Los Angeles Times article about the company. During the Civil War, both sides of the conflict used its saddles and harnesses, the newspaper reported.

#38. Engineers, firemen, oilers of machinery

- Total employment in 1870: 34,655

As of 2015, there were 1.6 million engineers in the United States, half of them industrial, mechanical, and civil engineers. Their median salary was $90,000, with the highest-paid civil engineers working in Alaska. New York, Texas, and California had the highest number of civil engineers.

#37. Deliverymen

- Total employment in 1870: 36,142

The number of delivery men and women has soared in the United States, from 690,000 to 850,000 from January 2018 to January 2020. That’s from data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics under the category of “courier and messenger.”

#36. Officials, inspectors, sheriffs, and other public service pursuits

- Total employment in 1870: 38,470

There are more than 3,000 sheriff offices across the United States. Sheriffs are typically elected officials, unlike other law enforcement officers. In 2016, there were more than 12,000 local police departments, plus federal, tribal, and campus officers.

#35. Bookkeepers, cashiers, and accountants

- Total employment in 1870: 38,776

There were 1,673,600 bookkeeping, auditing, and accounting clerks in 2019, and the outlook for this job is also not good. The number of jobs is expected to drop by 6% or 95,400 positions by 2029.

#34. Operatives and laborers (cigar and tobacco factories)

- Total employment in 1870: 41,387

According to Cigar Aficionado, there were 42,000 cigar factories in the United States in 1895 and cigar rollers had their own union. Today that number has shrunk to about 50, most in Florida and staffed by Cubans.

#33. Lawyers, judges, justices, abstracters, notaries, and justices of the peace

- Total employment in 1870: 41,791

If ever there was a profession that has exploded in size it is the legal one. As of 2018, there were 1.3 million active, licensed lawyers in the United States, according to the American Bar Association, a 15% increase over a decade. As far as judges, there are 1,770 in 209 courts in the federal system alone.

#32. Cabinetmakers

- Total employment in 1870: 43,307

A cabinetmaker is one profession that remains the same in name but often not in practice. Today’s cabinets are often mass-produced. One small group, Cabinet Makers Association, represents custom cabinetmakers and it is mostly made up of operations of 20 or fewer employees, most only one to five. A survey done in 2019 found the state of the industry to be good.

#31. Coopers

- Total employment in 1870: 44,351

Coopers make or repair barrels and casks and it is a disappearing profession. A British cooper warned in 2009 that there were only four breweries in that country that still employed coopers and he was the only master cooper. You can watch coopers at work at Colonial Williamsburg.

#30. Clergymen, religious workers, social workers, and welfare workers

- Total employment in 1870: 44,934

There were 431,000 members of the clergy in the United States in 2018, with an average age of almost 51. Men make more on average than women, $49,500 to $34,000. The areas in the country that employ the largest amount of clergy are in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Florida.

#29. Machinists

- Total employment in 1870: 55,138

There were 321,000 machinists in the United States in 2018, making on average $49,000 and most often working in machine shops. Minnesota, Tennessee, and Louisiana employed the most.

#28. Builders, building contractors, manufacturing managers, and officials, manufacturers

- Total employment in 1870: 57,662

According to the National Association of Home Builders, as of 2012, there were 30,380 single-family general contractors and 1,788 multifamily general contractors. Most contractors are small businesses that make less than $1 million.

#27. Metalworkers

- Total employment in 1870: 58,745

There were 137,700 sheet-metal workers in the United States as of 2019, with only a 1% growth expected for the next 10 years. These workers, who make about $50,000 a year, work with thin metal sheets to make products.

#26. Metal industry workers (except iron and steelworkers)

- Total employment in 1870: 60,537

The U.S. once had 45% of the world's copper production. Today that share of mine production is about 18%.

#25. Laundry operatives, launderers and laundresses, and laundry owners, managers, and officials

- Total employment in 1870: 64,055

This is one industry that has changed significantly in practice. With washing machines, hand washing is a luxury service. There are about 29,500 coin laundries in the United States, according to the Coin Laundry Association.

#24. Physicians, surgeons, osteopaths, chiropractors, and healers

- Total employment in 1870: 64,414

As of 2018, there were 985,026 licensed physicians in the United States, up 16%, or 134,941, from a similar census in 2010. That year there were 850,085 licensed physicians. Specialists include dermatologists, oncologists, gastroenterologists, and surgeons. There are far fewer osteopathic physicians, but more than ever in 2019 at 121,000.

#23. Draymen, teamsters, and carriage drivers

- Total employment in 1870: 83,292

Draymen delivered beer for a brewery, a task now done by truck, while carriage drivers can be found at horse shows and in competition.

#22. Operatives and laborers (bakeries, food factories, grain mills)

- Total employment in 1870: 86,711

Bakeries, food factories, and grain mills are still very much with us though often on a much larger scale. The country’s largest flour mill was created in 2014 from a merger of Horizon, which had 20 mills producing about 27 million pounds of flour a day, and ConAgra with 21 mills producing 23 million pounds of flour.

#21. Painters, glaziers, varnishers, enamelers

- Total employment in 1870: 87,479

There were 379,500 painters in construction and maintenance in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and little or no change was expected over the next 10 years. Glaziers cut and install glass, and there are about 32,600 in the construction industry in the United States. They make about $32,000 a year.

#20. Boatmen, canal men, captains, masters, mates, sailors, and deckhands

- Total employment in 1870: 89,797

Many of America’s canals are now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, a look back at the country’s past. Here’s an 1858 letter to Scientific American on the debate over whether to allow the railroads to supplant the canals: “One hundred thousand barrels of flour and half a million bushels of grain can be taken at Buffalo, and delivered alongside the storehouse or ship in New York in much less time, in better order, and at half the cost that it can be done by railroad,” the writer argued.

#19. Brick and stonemasons and tile layers

- Total employment in 1870: 90,775

There were 302,100 masonry workers in the United States in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The profession is expected to see a 3% decline in the next decade and lose about 10,000 jobs.

#18. Operatives and laborers (woolen, hemp, linen, lace, embroidery, and other textile mills)

- Total employment in 1870: 104,258

Textile mills were an important component of the economy of New England during the Industrial Revolution, with water-driven mills, but Southern states lured away companies with promises of cheap labor and no unions. By the 1950s, the last mills in Massachusetts closed, and in the 1990s the industry left the United States. In recent years, it has returned but more automated and so employing fewer people.

#17. Iron and steel, machinery, and vehicle workers

- Total employment in 1870: 107,439

There were 95,900 iron and steelworkers in the United States in 2019, and it’s an industry that is growing. It is expected to add 4,500 jobs in the next 10 years, a 5% increase. Ironworkers, whose median salary is $53,650 a year, install iron for bridges, roads, and buildings.

#16. Operatives and laborers (cotton mills)

- Total employment in 1870: 112,381

Cotton mills are returning to the United States, particularly to Southern states, but automation has taken many of the jobs those mills produced. USA Today reported that the textile industry had lost more 200,000 manufacturing jobs in the last 10 years.

#15. Laborers (road and street, express companies, pipelines, water transportation, other transportation, and communication)

- Total employment in 1870: 126,694

There are some 94,000 highway maintenance workers in the United States today, making $42,000 a year. Three states that employ the most are Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Kansas.

#14. Teachers, college presidents, and professors

- Total employment in 1870: 128,265

For the fall of 2020, there will be approximately 3.7 million teachers in the United States, 3.2 million of them in public schools, and another 500,000 in private schools. At the college level, there were 1.5 million faculty members as of the fall of 2017, 53% of them teaching full time.

#13. Blacksmiths

- Total employment in 1870: 145,044

The number of blacksmiths has dropped dramatically. In 2012, NPR reported that there were only between 5,000 and 10,000 blacksmiths in the country in a story about their artisanal future. And only about a 10th are professionals.

#12. Steam railroad employees

- Total employment in 1870: 157,058

The country’s oldest operating railroad takes tourists through the Pennsylvania countryside behind a coal-fired steam engine, the Voice of America reported. The Strasburg Rail Road harks back to the time the trains crossed the country, beginning in the 1830s and since replaced.

#11. Operatives and laborers (electric, paint, cement, and other manufacturing industries)

- Total employment in 1870: 159,991

The country's cement industry was made up of 106 cement plants in 2013 and was coming out of an economic downtown. It will need to remodel its plants if it hopes to become a greener industry. About 90% of them are powered by fossil fuels, typically coal or petroleum coke.

#10. Operatives and laborers (shoe factories), shoemakers, and cobblers

- Total employment in 1870: 172,811

Handmade shoes are a luxury item today. Shoe repair shops across the country number fewer than 7,000, down from 60,000 in the 1940s, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America.

#9. Building, general, and unspecified laborers

- Total employment in 1870: 183,924

There were nearly 7.3 million employees in the construction industry as of 2018 and the industry was expected to grow over by 1% over the next decade. The average salary is $53,000, and laborers make up most of the workers.

#8. Foremen, overseers, and other operatives (extraction of minerals)

- Total employment in 1870: 186,036

Mining in the United States began in the East with copper and iron. The gold rush in California in 1848 brought the industry West and it branched out to include other Western states such as Idaho and Montana. It could be a treacherous job but some were driven into it by the depressions of 1870 and 1890.

#7. Salespeople and clerks in stores

- Total employment in 1870: 240,812

There were 3.6 million cashiers in the United States in 2019, a job that is expected to decline in numbers over the next 10 years. It is likely to fall 7% or 263,000 jobs. Sales jobs in 2012 numbered 15 million, and are expected to rise to 16 million by 2022.

#6. Dressmakers, seamstresses, hatmakers, tailors, tailoresses, and laborers at other clothing factories

- Total employment in 1870: 256,773

There are some 53,000 tailors and dressmakers in the country, employed in the clothing industry. The habit of wearing hats has fallen off but The Headwear Association hopes to change that. The 112-year-old organization promotes hats and melanoma awareness.

#5. Carpenters

- Total employment in 1870: 365,801

There were 1 million carpenter jobs in the U.S. in 2019, and little change is expected in the industry in the next 10 years. The median pay was $48,000 a year.

#4. Retails and wholesale dealers, importers, and exporters

- Total employment in 1870: 440,247

The U.S. trade deficit has been an issue over the last several years but in 2019 it fell to $616.8 billion. That is down $10.9 billion from 2018. The country saw fewer exports of airplanes and more reliance on domestic oil.

#3. Cooks, waiters, charwomen, porters, and servants

- Total employment in 1870: 1,032,656

There were 2.6 million cooks in the United States in 2019, and the number of jobs was expected to increase by 10% over the next decade. There are a similar number of waiters and waitresses, 2.6 million in 2019, with a 4% increase expected.

#2. Farmers (owners and tenants), farm managers, and foremen

- Total employment in 1870: 3,127,716

Most agricultural land in the United States, more than 60%, is farmed by its owner, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. That number has been consistent over the last half-century, except for the 1980s when the farm crisis hit.

#1. Farm laborers

- Total employment in 1870: 3,722,057

There were 902,900 agricultural workers in 2019, a sharp drop from the number in 1870. In the next 10 years, the field is expected to grow only 1%. The National Center for Farmworker Health estimates that there are between 2.5 million and 3 million agricultural workers in the U.S., 73% of them foreign-born and 68% born in Mexico.

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