List of the Most Common Jobs in the 1800s [Updated]
Unsurprisingly, many of the most common occupations in the 19th century are very different from those we hold today. Traditional jobs remained at the forefront of the economy in America and Europe until the end of the century, when new innovations and consumer demands transformed industries and the way people worked.
Rapid advancements in technology and the rise of urban populations differed from state to state, region to region, and country to country, and effected the workforce in different ways. Still, the following occupations were common in most areas during the 19th century. Let’s explore the most popular jobs of the 1800s, from the early part of the century to its end.
Common Jobs in the 1800s: Rural and Urban
19th century America can be understood in three major eras: early or pre Civil War, Civil War, and late or turn of the century. Many occupations remained popular throughout these three major periods and experienced very few changes over time and are described below.
Depending on where an individual lived, some occupations were more common than others based on the demands of the specific area. Farmers, for example, would not work in a place like New York City, but a cobbler or clergyman would.
In each period, the following occupations were very common in both rural and urban areas:
Blacksmiths worked iron into useful tools and hardware. Common items made included farming implements, nails, horseshoes, and household tools.
Both rural and urban areas benefitted from the work of carpenters as new houses and commercial buildings were constructed.
Wagons were a main mode of transportation in the 1800s, so skilled wagonmakers enjoyed steady business!
Saloons were commonplace in large cities, small towns, and rural outposts. Saloon keepers managed the saloon and interacted with patrons.
Tailors ensured that clothing fit correctly. Because most people owned only a few items of clothing, it was important that they fitted well. As the century progressed, tailoring became a more common occupation.
Towns and cities grew throughout the 19th century and stonemasons laid exterior stone on new buildings.
Like clothing, most 19th century people only owned a few pairs of shoes that experienced heavy wear. Repairing shoes at a local cobbler proved more cost effective then buying a new pair.
Physicians made house calls in the 1800s and worked in both rural and urban areas. Medical advancements in the later half of the century and the foundation of many medical schools across America helped grow this occupation.
Painters worked on both residential and commercial buildings in rural and urban areas.
Pastors, priests, ministers, etc. were vital members of small and large communities in the 1800s. Most people attended church regularly and relied on the preaching of clergyman for wisdom and comfort.
Millers operated grain mills, which could be located in small towns or large cities. Flour was a pantry staple, especially in a time when everything was made from scratch.
Unlike the other occupations listed here, housekeeping was reserved for women. Wealthy members of society relied on competent housekeepers to manage their sprawling residences. Housekeeping usually involved cooking, cleaning, organizing, and managing the household schedule.
Grocers sold bulk items and fresh produce as well as spices and other commodities that were considered luxuries. While many people relied on their own farms for most of their food, those living in towns or cities relied on their local grocer for all of their food.
This unusual job involved hunting through trash for items that could be sold and used again.
Before electricity became commonplace, people bought their lamp oil from an elliman, who would go door to door selling their product to residences and businesses.
Men living in the 19th century are recognized by long hair and bushy beards. Because of the popular hair and facial hair styles of the day, men relied on local barbers to keep things tidy.
When the American Civil War broke out in the 1960s, most able bodied men found themselves in the role of serviceman. European countries like France and England possessed large numbers of servicemen throughout the century to manage their many military operations.
While many young men became teachers, this occupation was appropriate for women as well. Rural teachers would manage mixed-age classrooms and stay with different families during each school term. Frontier teachers moved to new teaching positions often depending on the needs of small communities.
Common occupations in mostly rural areas included:
An 1850 census of McHenry County, Illinois lists over 2,500 farmers. Farming was by far the most common occupation in 19th century America and Europe.
Farm laborers assisted with farm work but did not own their own land. They worked hard during planting and harvesting, cared for animals, and made necessary repairs around the farm.
While railroads did intersect major cities and towns, much of the railroad work that was completed in the 19th century happened on the frontier. Railroad workers laid tracks and worked their way east to west to bring trains and their freight across America.
Stagecoach drivers transported people over long distances. In rural settings, it might take a person many weeks to get from one small community to the next, but those who could afford to travel via stagecoach could get from place to place much faster.
Lumber was essential for building new towns across the frontier. Lumbermen worked in heavily wooded areas to fell trees and transport them down rivers. This job was extremely dangerous, as accidents could happen during cutting and many of the men who rode the logs downstream did not know how to swim.
Occupations at the End of the 19th Century
By the end of the 1800s, many occupations became less essential. As the economy relied more and more on large-scale manufacturing and technology, some of the occupations listed in the previous section would begin to die out. Other occupations became vital as new advancements in production and technology were accessible to more consumers.
The following occupations may have existed earlier in the 1800s in both urban and rural areas, but became very popular by the end of the century. Other jobs were brand new and created to support growing industries.
Late 19th century and early 20th century occupations included:
Electricity became more commonplace for wealthy households and many businesses in places like New York City. The job of electrician grew rapidly to support the growing popularity of electric lighting.
Agricultural machinery advanced in the late 1800s and made growing, selling, and buying beautiful flowers easier.
The textile industry boomed by the end of the century, with mostly women, and children working long hours in textile mills.
The telegraph, another important 19th century invention, required skilled operators.