Most common jobs in America 100 years ago

Written by:
September 6, 2020
Russell Lee // Wikimedia Commons

Most common jobs in America 100 years ago

The “Help Wanted” section in modern newspapers look significantly different than what it was a century ago. While the job market continually fluctuates, the type of roles people play in offices, factories, and farms are no longer the same as a century ago.

One of the main reasons is rapidly changing technology. Engines and airplanes have revolutionized people's ability to grow crops, while also helping to transport and move products at a significantly faster rate. Less reliance on cultivating items like iron, coal, and steel has minimized the role these former pillars of American industry play in the grand scheme of the national economy.

Stacker compiled the most common jobs in America using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1920 Census. A total of 210 occupations were considered for Stacker's list, and the entries were ranked by the number of people employed in an occupation in 1920. Several of the professions are no longer regularly called by the same name, but in those instances, Stacker grouped similar jobs from today to compare and contrast. Stacker also used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for current employment totals.

This list examines how daily life operated in the 1920s: With World War I over and the nation about to enter a stage of prosperity never before seen, some industries rocketed in popularity to adjust to this new definition of American industry. But with vital elements like electricity, roads, and medicine sometimes in short supply, can readers deduce what industry occupied the top spot 100 years ago?

Read on to discover the 50 most popular American jobs in the 1920s.

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#50. Gardeners, florists, fruit growers, and nurserymen

- Total employment in 1920: 169,399

Agriculture remains a heartbeat of the American industry, but technology has revolutionized the way people work on farms and in fields. A century ago, many functions from planting seeds to mowing fields were done manually, but machines have hastened the pace at which gardeners, florists, fruit growers, and nurserymen work.

#49. Textile industries, laborers

- Total employment in 1920: 169,953

Textiles and clothing manufacturing remains a potent industry in America, but jobs related to the industry have spread much farther out. Even in the 1920s, factories began moving south for cheaper labor. Today, a great deal of cloth production is handled overseas for more cost-effective prices.

#48. Deliverymen

- Total employment in 1920: 170,235

The substitution of motors over horse-drawn delivery vehicles rapidly changed this industry by the 1920s. With quicker methods of transportation, the need for more deliverymen dwindled. Delivery services are still a large part of daily American life—thanks to online shopping. However, the increase in the usage of drones and part-time delivery workers working through apps may soon change the usage of full-time postal carriers.

#47. Agents, canvassers, collectors

- Total employment in 1920: 175,772

Agents, canvassers, and collectors are not as prevalent as before. Digitization of sales and bills negates the need for an actual person to come door to door to collect debts.

#46. Janitors and sextons

- Total employment in 1920: 178,628

Maintenance workers continue to be in high demand in America. Technology has undoubtedly made certain tasks easier and quicker, but full-on replacement of janitors or sextons has yet to occur. Robotic workers, while available, have yet to be perfected on a wide scale.

#45. Commercial travelers

- Total employment in 1920: 179,320

Commercial travelers or traveling salespersons are still around but not on the scale as once before. Goods can be purchased in large stores or online with ease, while new products can often be introduced to mass audiences similarly on television or online.

#44. Food industries, semiskilled operatives

- Total employment in 1920: 188,895

Food industry workers remain in high-demand, despite a large number of imported goods. Factories producing foods, cafeterias, restaurants, and markets remain a staple of everyday life, even with the increase in food and grocery delivery services.

#43. Telephone operators

- Total employment in 1920: 190,160

No longer is an operator necessary to connect calls from one person to another. Cell phones make talking on the phone one of the simplest tasks, but operators still play crucial daily roles, particularly in customer service realms for companies and businesses.

#42. Tailors and tailoresses

- Total employment in 1920: 192,232

The mass production of clothes in various sizes lessens the need for tailored garments, but Americans still prefer for particular articles of clothing to be customized. Suits keep tailors and tailoresses in business while the rapid pace of 9-to-5 life creates smaller jobs from busy people who don't have time to sew small holes and buttons. 

#41. Managers and superintendents (manufacturing)

- Total employment in 1920: 201,721

With any workplace, managers and superintendents remain a crucial cog in daily flow. Computers have helped make their jobs easier and have streamlined production, but people are still needed for most industries to solve problems and keep steady workflows.

#40. Lumberman, raftsmen, and woodchoppers

- Total employment in 1920: 205,315

Gone are the days of scores of outdoorsmen heading out into the forest to chop wood. However, the demand for items like paper and lumber is still high, so this industry is not fading away any time soon. High-tech equipment expedites the time needed to break down wood for various uses, but many of those machines still need operators.

#39. Shoe factories, semiskilled operatives

- Total employment in 1920: 206,225

A century ago, a majority of shoes were made to serve multiple purposes—running shoes, for example, weren’t a luxury to be found. While there are significantly more types of shoes being produced, that doesn’t lead to many more Americans working in shoe factories. Many shoes that are worn in the U.S. are produced overseas.

#38. Plumbers and gas and steam fitters

- Total employment in 1920: 206,718

In 2019, there are more than 500,000 plumbers in the U.S. The plumbing market size accounts for almost $110 billion, making this a thriving industry that has survived recent changes. With America growing with new cities and bigger buildings, plumbing has consequently benefitted from all the new construction.

#37. Electricians

- Total employment in 1920: 212,964

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports there were 715,400 electrician jobs in 2018, more than three times the amount in 1920. This profession, which earns an average of over $55,000 per year, remains a solid blue-collar option, as work is always available in abundance.

#36. Barbers, hairdressers, and manicurists

- Total employment in 1920: 216,211

The number of barbers, hairdressers, and manicurists employed in 1920 is somewhat astonishing, considering there are only about 20,000 barbers alone in America in 2019. Manicurists (and pedicurists) close the gap with over 156,000 registered employees. Despite the presence of high-end salons and spas, these occupations remain relatively low-paying. 

#35. Blacksmiths, forgemen, and hammermen

- Total employment in 1920: 221,421

The idea of a blacksmith is more obsolete today, but many workers still perform similar tasks. Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers make up about 425,000 jobs in the U.S., working more so with metals than iron to construct many of the products that blacksmiths created a century ago.

#34. Housekeepers and stewards

- Total employment in 1920: 221,612

The number of maids and housekeepers has quadrupled over the past 100 years, according to the BLS. Many housekeepers are part-time or freelance workers. Apps like TaskRabbit make it easy for anyone with spare time to pick up work cleaning spaces—while a large number of housekeepers and stewards in the early 20th century were full-time employees.

#33. Soldiers, sailors and marines

- Total employment in 1920: 225,503

In June 2019, there were 1,177,731 active military personnel, with almost 780,000 reserves. After World War I and over the past century, the American armed forces have multiplied in strength and have been deployed worldwide.

#32. Waiters

- Total employment in 1920: 228,985

The BLS reports there are 2,634,600 waiters and waitresses employed in 2019, more than 10 times the amount in 1920. Dining out is an American pastime for those with disposable income, increasing the need for waiters and waitresses.

#31. Manufacturers and officials

- Total employment in 1920: 231,615

Manufacturers covered a wide range of definitions in the 1920s, including apprentices or clothing factory employees, as well as steel mill and iron manufacturers. While apprenticeships aren’t as relevant in 2019, manufacturing across a varied scope of industries remains a prominent American industry.

#30. Dressmakers and seamstresses (not in factory)

- Total employment in 1920: 235,855

Current numbers, according to the BLS, show that there are 21,150 dressmakers in the nation. While bespoke dresses are still popular—particularly for weddings—mass production of dresses by hundreds of clothing labels have diminished the need for independent dressmakers on a large scale.

#29. Engineers (stationary), cranemen, hoistmen

- Total employment in 1920: 279,984

The BLS doesn’t even label workers as cranemen or hoistmen, but similarly grouped crane operators come in at about 44,410. It is hard to tabulate how these occupations translate into relevance today, but given America’s nonstop building and construction boom, workers with similar skills remain in high demand.

#28. Mechanics

- Total employment in 1920: 281,741

The mechanic was a more vague term in 1920, whereas today several industries have specialized mechanics. In the automotive service industry alone, there are 770,100 mechanics according to the BLS. While machinery continues to accelerate at the speed at which mechanical tasks can be completed, employees to operate those devices remain necessary.

#27. Chauffeurs; road and street transportation

- Total employment in 1920: 285,045

Today, chauffeurs are grouped in with taxi drivers and ride-hailing drivers, totaling 370,400 according to BLS. The role has evolved tremendously from small cars and buggies to the sleek cars people drive today. Although some cities try to curb the usage of ride-share vehicles, they remain highly popular.

#26. Foreman and overseers (manufacturing)

- Total employment in 1920: 307,413

Today, foremen and overseers can be defined as first-line supervisors of production and operating workers. These employees total 622,790 and given the expansion of American industry, that comes as little surprise.

#25. Lumber and furniture industries, laborers

- Total employment in 1920: 320,613

Furniture and related product manufacturing employment numbers total 393,560 today, putting the industry just slightly above the 1920 tally. While there are more Americans in 2019 than 1920, and therefore more need for furniture, the production of different items can be heavily imported for cost-effectiveness.

#24. Painters, glaziers, varnishers, enamelers

- Total employment in 1920: 323,032

Painters comprised over 375,000 jobs in 2019, a boost of about 50,000 from 1920. While painting was a more tedious occupation 100 years ago, the need for services has not changed much. Improved methods for large-scale projects could also contribute to the smaller increase in painters today, despite more opportunities for work.

#23. Launderers and laundresses (not in laundry)

- Total employment in 1920: 396,756

Today, there are 209,350 workers in laundry and dry cleaning, almost half the amount 100 years ago. One reason could be the technology for mass laundering, whereas many items in 1920 had to be hand-washed.

#22. Other industries, laborers (broom, button, and rubber factories, etc.)

- Total employment in 1920: 403,891

There are 134,890 employees in rubber manufacturing, while BLS does not classify specifically in broom and button factories. One possible reason is that there is no longer a need for specific factories for those items, which can be mass-produced along with other similar products in one central location.

#21. Clothing industries, semiskilled operatives

- Total employment in 1920: 409,361

Figures in this industry seasonally adjust; there were 1,320,600 employees in the clothing and clothing accessory industry in August 2019. Clothes shopping has completely transformed over the past 100 years, from the number of stores to the specialized retailers available for almost every clothing need. Retail salespersons comprise most of the jobs in the clothing industry.

#20. Draymen, teamsters, and expressmen; road and street transportation

- Total employment in 1920: 411,132

Draymen are mostly classified as delivery persons today in the food industry. Although the BLS doesn’t categorize delivery drivers specifically by food, there are a total of 1,449,100 of those workers in 2019. The Teamsters union currently has a membership of 1.4 million.

#19. Clerks in stores

- Total employment in 1920: 413,918

There are 4,768,900 retail sales workers in the U.S., more than 10 times the amount in 1920. According to Forbes, retail salesperson is the most popular job in the country, showing America’s rise in consumerism compared to 100 years ago.

#18. Laborers; railroad transportation

- Total employment in 1920: 495,713

There were only 91,100 railroad workers in 2019, and about 42,000 railroad conductors according to most recent data by BLS. Rail travel remains prevalent today, with faster and more comfortable trains on the tracks, but in 1920, the train was the preferred mode to travel.

#17. Stenographers and typists

- Total employment in 1920: 615,154

There are only 15,700 court reporters (what are generally classified as stenographers) today. However, that number goes up to almost 3.8 million when accounting for secretaries under typists. 

#16. Other industries, semiskilled operatives (broom, button, and rubber factories, etc.)

- Total employment in 1920: 622,662

To get a grasp of how different life was in 1920, think about the 622,662 workers in the broom, button, and rubber factories. With all of those items available at any local dollar store, they are very much disposable. However, due to the pace of life 100 years ago, a simple button or broom might be a valued houseware good, thus making a need for high amounts of employees to produce them.

#15. Building, general, and not specified laborers

- Total employment in 1920: 623,203

If we classify building, general, and not specified laborers as construction laborers today, there are 1,645,700 such workers in circulation. These workers remain part of a profession in high-demand, from small household tasks to helping construct city skylines.

#14. Iron and steel industries, semiskilled operatives

- Total employment in 1920: 689,980

In the early 20th century, iron and steel were the backbones of American industry and growth. Today, there are only 82,060 workers in iron and steel mills and ferroalloy manufacturing. With the increased use of plastics and other materials and imports of construction materials, the reliance on iron and steel is less necessary in 2019.

#13. Iron and steel industries, laborers

- Total employment in 1920: 729,613

BLS stats don’t differentiate between semiskilled operatives and laborers. However, there might not be another industry so drastically different than iron and steel when examining previous numbers. There were more than 1.4 million workers in the field, while BLS stats put today’s numbers at almost 15 times less than that.

#12. Coal mine operatives

- Total employment in 1920: 733,936

Coal is no longer as essential for industry operations in the U.S. Only 50,750 workers in coal mining were counted as of May 2018. While new energy sources have been developed since 1920, an effort to be more environmentally conscious has also waned people's dependence on coal.

#11. Bookkeepers, cashiers, and accountants

- Total employment in 1920: 734,688

The BLS now defines this occupation as bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks, with 1,707,700 workers. Despite an estimated 4% decline in the field, there are still about 1 million more workers keeping track of financials, boosted by computer tools like Excel and TurboTax.

#10. Teachers

- Total employment in 1920: 761,766

There are 1,569,000 kindergarten and elementary school teachers, 615,700 middle school teachers, and 1,072,500 high school teachers according to the BLS. That is almost five times the number in 1920, thanks to America’s booming population and intense focus on education compared to a century ago.

#9. Textile industries, semiskilled operatives

- Total employment in 1920: 792,394

Semiskilled operatives are not classified by BLS numbers, but there were 14,610 total workers in textile, apparel, and furnishings, according to the most recent data from May 2017. Workers in pressers, textile, garment, and related materials only account for 38,320 workers, as this industry has drastically changed after the introduction of new machinery that churns out thousands of garments in hours.

#8. Carpenters

- Total employment in 1920: 887,379

A total of 1,006,500 carpenters indicates a slight increase compared to 1920, with the number expected to rise. Over the next 10 years, carpenters are expected to see an 8% growth among their ranks. While the tools of the trade haven’t changed all that much, the quality and cost-effectiveness of hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and other staples are light years ahead of what was used 100 years ago.

#7. Machinists, millwrights, and toolmakers

- Total employment in 1920: 894,662

There are about half the amount of machinists, toolmakers, and millwrights (what BLS now calls die makers) today at a total of 469,500. These workers “set up and operate machine tools to produce precision metal parts, instruments, and tools,” and on average, make more than $21 per hour.

#6. Salesmen and saleswomen

- Total employment in 1920: 1,177,494

In terms of retail salespersons, there are 4,448,120 in the U.S. as of May 2018. With shopping malls and local mom and pops dotting the American landscape from Maine to California, the need for salespersons continues to grow, despite a mean hourly wage of $13.61.

#5. Servants (bell boys, butlers, cooks, etc)

- Total employment in 1920: 1,270,946

Guests were sure to be swarmed and pampered by a variety of bell boys, butlers, and cooks upon stepping into a swanky hotel in 1920. Today, classified as baggage porters and bellhops, these workers only total at 42,350. While luxury travel remains a facet of the hospitality industry, the abundance of options at cheaper option hotels negates the need for so many servants at every lodging locale.

#4. Retail dealers

- Total employment in 1920: 1,328,275

In 1920, there were fewer salespersons than retail dealers. Many stores reported three or fewer salespersons for each clerk. Retail dealers, while the 1920 Census does not make clear the exact differences in responsibility for salespersons, were more widely utilized.

#3. Clerks (except clerks in stores)

- Total employment in 1920: 1,487,905

The 1920 Census indicated that enumerators “failed utterly” in differentiating between clerks and salespeople. So while the almost 1.5 million clerks is an enormous number, there is some debate over the total number of exact clerks employed 100 years ago.

#2. Dairy farm, farm, and stock farm laborers

- Total employment in 1920: 4,041,627

Today there are 145,530 dairy product manufacturers and over 975,000 farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers. Farming remains a pillar of industry in the Midwest, but imports, tariffs, and other factors have cut into the prevalence of farmworkers across the country.

#1. Dairy farm, farmers, and stock raisers

- Total employment in 1920: 6,261,261

In the 1920s, many children were employed on farms, whereas today laws create age boundaries to work legally. The presence of children on farms is not entirely to credit for the number of farmers that made this occupation the most common job in America 100 years ago⁠—in fact, fewer children were working on farms in 1920 than in 1910. This trend is, however, indicative of the kind of nation the U.S. was a century ago. 

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