6 common jobs in colonial America

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During colonial times, the most prestigious jobs were reserved for affluent white men, who obtained appointments as colonial governors and military leaders. But there were many other types of jobs in Britain’s 13 American colonies.

Benjamin Banneker, a free black man born in Maryland in 1731, was a farmer and writer who, after the American Revolution, participated in the surveying to establish the District of Columbia. Elizabeth Freeman, who successfully sued for her freedom in Massachusetts in 1781 (becoming the first person to gain her freedom in this way), worked as a midwife and nurse.

Here are six common types of jobs people held in the 13 colonies and what they produced.

Costume wigs modeled on those worn in the American colonies.

1. Wig

Wigs – or “wigs” – were an expensive high fashion accessory among wealthy men in the 13 colonies. This was especially true for those who held high-ranking positions in the colonial government or the military. Many wig makers used horse hair imported from China to make heavy and intricate hairpieces for their customers.

The trade did not last long after the colonial period, as wigs began to go out of style during the time of the American Revolution. Although many Americans assume that George Washington wore a wig, he did not. Her portrait on the dollar bill shows her real hair, just powdered and styled to look like a wig.

Original shelves, drawers and lockers with leeches, lancets and snake from a colonial-era apothecary in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Original shelves, drawers and containers with leeches, lancets and snake roots from a colonial-era apothecary on display in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

2. Apothecary

An apothecary was a pharmacy owner who sometimes acted as a doctor or surgeon, depending on the availability of medical care in the area. These workers attempted to treat clients’ illnesses with drugs they had manufactured or imported.

A customer with a headache could be given coffee beans, as it was understood that coffee can relieve some (but not all) headaches. A client suffering from what we now call malaria could be given “Peruvian bark”. This drug used cinchona bark, native to the Andes of South America, which contains quinine, one of the best treatments for malaria at the time.

Benjamin Franklin is pictured at age 15 in his brother's printing house in Boston, Massachusetts.

Benjamin Franklin is pictured at age 15 in his brother’s printing press in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1721.

3. Printer

Printers published newspapers, brochures, books, almanacs, and other publications during colonial times. Probably the most famous printer of this time was Benjamin Franklin, who published his Poor Richard’s Almanac under a pseudonym between 1732 and 1758.

The first successful colonial newspaper was the Boston News-Letter, which lasted from 1704 to 1776. This newspaper was subsidized by the British government and focused on news from Europe. In 1719, the rival Boston Gazette Was found. Under the direction of Benjamin Edes and John Gill, who became the Gazetteprinters and publishers, in 1755 the newspaper became one of the main organs of criticism of the British Empire and of support for colonial independence.

4. Tavern

The first taverns of the 13 colonies were very similar to British taverns, but they evolved to meet a variety of needs. They served as places for social, political, and business gatherings, had rooms to rent like an inn, and also served as a market to buy goods.

Many, perhaps most, of the tavern keepers were white women, and the widows of prominent men were particularly successful in obtaining licenses to operate taverns. Taverniers can also own plantations and enslave Blacks, forcing them to work in the Keeper’s Tavern. In addition to using slave labor, taverns were also sites for slave auctions.

A man plays the role of a colonial shoemaker in Williamsburg, Virginia.

A man plays the role of a colonial shoemaker in Williamsburg, Virginia.

5. Shoemaker

Shoemaking and paving were important trades in all 13 colonies. Shoemakers usually specialized in certain types of footwear. For example, shoemakers were leather workers who made leather shoes. The shoemakers were the ones who repaired the shoes when they got too worn.

In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, fashionable women’s shoes became politicized as British government settlers discouraged other settlers from buying British goods. In 1765, a Philadelphia shoemaker put out an advertisement aimed at women who wanted to “distinguish themselves by their patriotism and encouragement from American factories,” alerting them that he made “all kinds of woolen or woolen shoes, in all sizes. , as neat and inexpensive as any imported from England.

6. Saddle

When European settlers arrived in the Americas, they brought with them many non-native animal species, including horses. Throughout the colonial era, horses were incredibly expensive animals that usually only belonged to wealthy white families. Saddlery-harness was therefore a fairly lucrative profession, since most of the saddlers sold to wealthy people who wanted nice things.

Saddlers made different types of equipment depending on who their customers were and how they rode their horses. Pigskin was a good material for hunters as it helped riders stay seated when chasing an animal (steerskin, on the other hand, became more slippery over time and made it easier for riders to glide). Saddlers also made side saddles for women to use while wearing dresses and racing saddles for horse jockeys.


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