They Did What?….A Look at Occupations

I thought it’d be fun to look back at some of the occupations of the 1800’s and even earlier. Some sound very weird to us but I’m sure back then they weren’t any different from computer technician, an astronaut, a day trader, or a stock broker.

And while everything had a name, settlers on the frontier tended to call things normal terms everyone could understand. Like simply a stage coach driver instead of a whip. People started moving away from the stiff technical terms, opting for less flowery language. Most folks back in the early days didn’t have time to waste on words that bent the tongue. They were too busy trying to survive.

Some jobs carried simple names that you know right off what the person did. Like:

Tanner – one who tans and cures animal hides (still around today but not real common)
Spurrer – one who made spurs
Saddler – one who made, repaired, or sold saddles and other furnishings for horses
Sawyer – one who sawed trees or wood by hand at a lumber mill or lumbering operation
Teamster – one who drove a horse, mule or ox-drawn freight wagon; a modern day truck driver  

Matchgirl – a girl who sold matches

A lot of these others you probably already know but maybe you’ll find a few surprises.

Lormer – a maker of horsegear
Boardwright – carpenter; one who made tables and chairs and the like
Bone Picker – someone who traveled around collecting rags and bones
Pettifogger – shyster lawyer
Peripatetic Artist – one who went from town to town painting portraits or panoramas on walls of homes and taverns
Cordwainer – one who made shoes – different from a cobbler who just repairs them
Farrier – a blacksmith who specializes in shoeing horses – called same today as back then
Cooper – someone who made or repaired wooden barrels, tubs or the like
Chandler – a candlemaker – had a steady business before gas and electric lights
Lamplighter – someone appointed to light streetlamps at dusk and extinguish them at dawn
Runner – someone who solicited business for a hotel, boardinghouse, steamship and the like

Whitesmith – tinsmith or worker of iron who finished or polished an item
Tinker – someone who made tinware
Wheelwright – one who made or repaired wheels for wagons, carriages or coaches
Snow Warden – someone appointed in one of the northern states to keep snow flattened and evenly distributed over roads for sleds and sleighs
Drummer – traveling salesman

In the old West, some of these jobs tended to overlap at times. For instance, a blacksmith often made spurs and/or tinware and the like in addition to forging horseshoes, plows, farm implements, tools, etc. He might also shoe horses and be the owner of the livery or stables.

All of this makes me wonder which of today’s occupations will vanish in the next 50 or 100 years. And what new occupations will take their place? It’ll be interesting to see. They’ll most likely have increased space travel; maybe take passengers back and forth to the moon, mars, or another of the planets. Wonder what those passengers will be called? Simply space travelers or something trendier?

What is the strangest profession (modern or otherwise) that you’ve heard?

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

27 thoughts on “They Did What?….A Look at Occupations”

  1. Hi Linda, great post! I’ve heard of most of these occupations, but you’ve come up with a few new ones.

    Last year I did some research into the textile industry in Victorian England, and found some unusual occupations. There were carders, spinners and weavers of course, but also fullers who soaked the cloth in vats of liquid (mostly urine!) and walkers who walked on the fabric to stretch it. Imagine spending your days walking around on cloth. The good old days? I don’t think so.

  2. I didn’t think of an odd occupation when I first read your post, I thought about how many surnames came from what people did. Cooper, Tanner, Sawyer are such great names and became first names as well.

    So my only tidbit is this: Most people don’t know that Conrad Hilton (of Paris and all the rest) did not give the Hilton name to his hotel but took his last name from the first hotel he bought.

    In our family, we call them pseudo Hiltons.

    Peace, Julie HILTON Steele

  3. a matchgirl? that was a whole job?? selling matches?
    bone picker? what did this person do with the bones and rags he picked up? and why were rags just laying around?
    snow warden—i wondered what they did about that–did he have a big heaven sled or plow or what?

    oh they are all so interesting…i have so many questions about them all–thanks for the post linda!

    jennie–they soaked the cloth in urine? that makes the walking job sound a whole lot less desirable, lol

  4. Hi Linda! What an interesting post! Several of those were new to me. And it’s interesting how so many of them are related to producing goods. Now we process information and the goods just seem to appear. The honor of the strangest occupation in my family might go to my mom. When she was 18 or so, she helped my grandfather repair TVs. Remember TV tubes? LOL!

  5. And off the top of my head, the strangest job I can think of is, one year, for a part time college job, my daughter had to walk up and down a barn lined with stalls with cows in then to check if they cows went into labor and had calves.

    That’s the job.

    Not to deliver the calves. She’d just walk up and down every fifteen minutes, past everyone (well, every COW) with a clipboard and note their progress.

    I told her that if they ever gave her a brown paper bag and asked her to meet a man in an alley and trade him for a briefcase full of case, to RUN.

  6. Hi Jennie, glad you enjoyed my post. It’s really strange how each little job had it’s own name. Today those jobs would just be lumped into a main profession. And I’ve never heard of someone who walked on cloth for a living! How funny. Just think of how many jobs machines stole from workers. It’s astounding.

    Hope you have a great day!

  7. Hi Julie….interesting tidbit about the Hiltons. I did not know that. They sure are a snobbish bunch who like to flaunt their money. Wouldn’t it be funny if their real name was a common one like Smith or Jones? 🙂

    Yeah, it’s amazing how people got their names. I think it stems from the Viking days when everyone was just born with a first name and their profession became their last name.

    Peace to you as well!

  8. In medieval times, names were taken from your trade – John Cooper, John who made barrels, John Thatcher, John who thatched roofs. Relationships also factored in – Johnson, John’s son. In Gaelic areas, a Mac, Mc, Gil, nad O prefix on a name meant descended from. (Mac originally meaning son of and O meaning grandson of). Names and their origins are truly interesting.

    As for jobs, knackers were common in Europe and must have been used in the heavily populated areas of the US. Knackers bought worn-out or old livestock and slaughtered them to sell the meat or hides. They rendered the carcasses and much of the meat was used in animal feed. They would often also haul off recently dead animals.

    Finished GIVE ME A TEXAS RANGER and really enjoyed it. Just what I needed as a pick me up in the summer doldrums : )

    Have a great week and stay cool.

  9. Hi Tabitha….glad you stopped by to visit. It’s always great seeing you. Matchgirl was indeed a profession in the 1800’s. She sold them on the street. I can’t imagine she made a whole lot of money, but in those days a person had to make a living any way they could. I’m sure being a match girl was no different from a cigarette girl here in the U.S. who sold cigarettes in night clubs. Oh, and come to think of it….there were also (and maybe still are) coat and hat check girls.

    About the bone picker…I’m not exactly who bought the rags, but I know there was a market for them. About the bones…After hunters killed off all the buffalo (or most of them anyway) bone pickers went out and collected the bones. They sold them to manufacturers who made bone china.

    And I know next to nothing about snow wardens. That might be an interesting subject to research.

    Have a great day!

  10. Wow, some of these I’d never have guessed, Linda. Interesting how so many of them became last names. I’ve heard Chandler, not only as a candlemaker but as someone who furnished supplies for outgoing ships. There’s got to be some connection there.
    Thanks for a very informative blog.

  11. Hi Vicki….glad you enjoyed my subject today. Yes, I certainly remember TV tubes and how they tended to go out on you. I don’t know how many people get their TV’s repaired today. Seems like when a TV goes out, people just go out and buy another one. We’re such a wasteful nation. But oftentimes it’s cheaper than the cost of repairing. My refrigerator went out (and it was only 8 years old) and the repair guy told me it would cost more to fix than replace so that’s what I did.

    Wishing you a wonderful day!

  12. Hi Mary….yep, these professions would make wonderful names alright. Glad I gave you the idea. 🙂 I wonder if my maiden name of Smith came about because one of my ancestors was a blacksmith?? Could be. It’s better than being a hog caller I guess!

    Your daughter’s job of checking those pregnant cows was a bit strange. I’ve never heard of that. But there are tons of jobs I’ve never heard about. Guess I’ve lived in a bubble. LOL Just glad your daughter didn’t have to actually help deliver the calves.

    Enjoy your day and keep smiling!

  13. Hi Patricia….wow, you’ve made my day! I’m so glad you enjoyed Texas Ranger. We have another anthology coming out next year called GIVE ME AN OUTLAW. I think it’ll be our best one yet.

    Thank you for reminding me about how names evolved from the Medieval days. I remember reading how babies used to just have a first name and their family profession became the last name. Makes me curious…wonder if my maiden name of Smith came about because my ancestors were blacksmiths? It’s also true of slaves and how they took the last name of their slave owner. Bet that makes researching their genealogy a nightmare.

    Thanks too, for explaining about the meaning of the Gaelic prefixes to names. I didn’t know that. How interesting.

    I also learned something else…the profession of knackers. Very fascinating stuff.

    Thanks for stopping by! Have a great day.

  14. Hi Elizabeth….glad my blog caught your interest. It’s amazing at the connection between names and professions. I didn’t realize that fully until today. I’m sure there is a connection between the candlemaker and the person who supplied outgoing ships, but don’t know what it is. Might be an interesting subject to research.

    Hope you have a wonderful day!

  15. hey linda–forgot (in my hurry to get the girls ready and to leave for work) that i too really enjoyed Give Me a Texas Ranger!
    so often in multiple author books you get one good story, one bad story and a so-so or two

    each and every story was great in this one! and i always think it’s extra special when a story can grab you in a shorter amount of time than full length book
    good work and you are in good company! 🙂

  16. hi Linda, great blog. I always thought chandler sounded way cool. I think the funniest job today is the “human arrow” folks who stand with an arrow and dance around pointng at something. oxoxox

    I also enjoyed Give me Texas Ranger so, so much! oxox

  17. Linda, I had to pop back in. Was just listening to Dick Gordon’s The Story and they did a segment on unusual summer jobs.

    A woman was a “toe checker” at her pool. She said she never was sure what she was supposed to find but she supposed it was feet that shouldn’t be in a public pool. She said she always gave the snooty girls a hard time about their feet.

    LOL..”toe checker”

  18. Tabitha….thank you so much! I’m thrilled you liked TEXAS RANGER. On behalf of Jodi, Phyliss, DeWanna, and I we appreciate your kind words. It’s very satisfying to get feedback from our readers. Makes all the lonely hours worth it.

    And yes, I really think I’m in good company to be sure! Bless you, girl.

  19. Linda, what a fun post! I’ve never heard a lawyer called a pettifogger before. Can hardly wait to use it in a story. I’m always interested in different occupations for my characters … not all heroes were cowboys or lawmen! LOL One I saw recently was a hog-reeve. Someone who was hired to round up the stray hogs from the city streets, particularly in the big cities, such as NYC, where “well-mannered” hogs were allowed to run the streets (even on Broadway) and eat the trash. I guess that was before garbage men came into existence.

  20. Hi Tanya….I’ve never heard of a human arrow but it does sound really funny. I can’t imagine how much those people get paid to stand around looking stupid.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed TEXAS RANGER. That makes my day!

  21. Hi Phyliss….glad you got a kick out of my blog. I’m going to keep an eye out and see if you use pettifogger in one of your stories. LOL I’m like you though, I like to use different occupations for my H/H. Makes things more interesting. I’d sure hate to have to put hog-reeve on my resume. Lord have mercy! Be a hard thing to live down. Even worse than sin-eater who was actually someone who ate the food of a dead person and thus “ate” their sins so they could get into heaven. I swear this is true. There was a movie about it a long time ago that starred Richard Thomas (John Boy Walton.) It was a tear-jerker.

    Good luck with your deadline. Hope you get finished.

  22. Hi, Linda! Thank you for an interesting post!

    A few more:

    Lithographer: one who prints using a stone (lithographic limestone) or a metal plate with a completely smooth surface.

    Cartographer: one who makes maps

    Scrimshander: Someone who makes scrimshaw–intricate carved Ivory.

    Cordwainer (like the French “cordonnier”: Someone who makes fine leather shoes, but may also be used for someone who works using leather.

    Last, but not least, my favorite: Chocolatier – a maker or seller of chocolate candies, especially fancy or expensive ones : )

  23. Hey Linda,

    What an informative piece. I never gave much thought to this until this post. Here are a couple I have heard.
    borer-traveling salesman
    cordwainer- person who makes shoes

    Very interesting thanks Linda for a great piece

    Walk in harmony,

  24. Hi Virginia C and Melinda….thanks for the additions. There’s lots of occupations out there and too numerous for me to mention them all. I’m glad you stopped by to comment. Great hearing from you again, Melinda.

  25. Hi Linda,

    My favorite was the snow warden. I have never heard of such a thing! A lot of those jobs I hadn’t heard of, though some were familiar. I have had a lot of “interesting” jobs throughout my life–probably the one I enjoyed the most was when I worked at a museum. Probably the “oddest” job I ever had was working as the ‘complaint person’ for the McDonald’s corporate office here in Oklahoma City. VERY INTERESTING. And unusual. LOL

    Great post–I really enjoyed it.
    Cheryl P.

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