Five Jobs That Transformed America

Family History
28 October 2014
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5 jobs that transformed america
[Photo credit: Danzil Raines via Flickr]
From 1860 to 1910, the population of the United States nearly tripled, from 31.4 million (including 3.9 million enslaved individuals) to 92.2 million. During that period, of course, the United States endured the Civil War. But the country also underwent the Second Industrial Revolution, transforming itself from a largely agrarian society into the greatest industrial power on the planet.

The jobs of our great-great-grandparents and their parents during this period reflect that transformation and expansion, providing insight into a nation undergoing a process of reinvention. Here, according to census records, are the five most common jobs during this time period, along with a couple of additional occupations that reflect the industrialization of America.

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1. Farming: Despite the excitement generated by massive industrialization and advances in technology during the second half of the 19th century, farming still remained the largest occupation. In 1860, 3.3 million free Americans (and the majority of the 3.9 million slaves) were farmers or farm laborers. By 1910, 12.5 million Americans, or about 13.6 percent of the population, worked the land.

Even in this sector, however, large-scale changes took place. From 1860 to 1910, farm acreage doubled and acreage under production quadrupled. Liberal land grant policies and railroads sent Americans and American farms westward. By 1910, 38 percent of farms were located west of the Mississippi.

Farming grew increasingly mechanized and devoted to cash crops. The increase in crops, however, sent prices crashing, causing havoc for farm families of that era. A farm laborer in 1866 earned approximately 64 cents a day with board and 90 cents without it, and by 1910, earned an average of $1.07 a day with board or $1.31 without board.

2. Servants and waiters: In this do-it-yourself age, it may be surprising to learn that the second-most common occupation 150 years ago, after farm work, was servant or waiter. In 1860, 565,517 Americans worked in this field, including 353 cooks and 5,256 “domestics.” By 1910, that number had grown to 1,867,443.

Less surprisingly, the majority of these servants and waiters were women. In 1880, women in domestic service outnumbered men 970,273 to 185,078. By 1910, women in the profession outnumbered men by almost a million, at 1,422,116 women compared to 445,332 men. Domestic workers were usually young, single women whose terms of service lasted until marriage. For women, obviously prevented by 19th-century sexism from engaging in many occupations, the job paid relatively well. In 1870, a female servant could expect to earn $10.87 a week, including board. That was double what female servants had earned 50 years earlier.

However, while servants’ pay was equal or better than pay from other jobs open to poor, uneducated females, domestic work attracted few native-born women because of the long hours, low status, lack of freedom, and close supervision. Young immigrant women thus held many servant jobs in big cities.

3. Non-farm labor: This broad category included the muscle that built America. The 1860 census reported 971,723 non-farm laborers, including 1,016 well diggers. By 1910, the number of laborers had grown to 1,317,400, which was actually a considerable reduction from a high of 2,629,362 in 1900.

In 1870, general laborers in New England earned about $1.56 a day. By 1889, wages had dropped to $1.39 a day. A decade later in 1900, a laborer in New York might earn $1.51 a day, but their counterparts in North Carolina laborers were earning only 71 cents a day. Wages in some parts of the country might not have grown as much as they would have otherwise due in part to the enormous influx of immigrants who sought unskilled ,general laborer jobs.

4. Clerks: By 1910, with the Second Industrial Revolution nearly complete, clerks had grown to become one of the largest occupations. The number of clerks grew with the nation’s infrastructure, as they managed the paperwork for railroad companies laying track across the country and increasingly large corporations shipping goods on them. In 1860, clerks accounted for only 184,496 jobs. By 1910, the number of clerks and copyists had jumped to 1,183,448. For the clerks themselves, sons of farmers and laborers, life in an office promised a ticket to the new American middle class. In 1895, male clerks earned an average of $924 a year, while female clerks earned $526. By 1909, male clerks earned an average of $1,058 a year, while female clerks brought home $688.

5. New industrial jobssteam railroad employees, ironworkers, and miners: The most direct evidence of the Second Industrial Revolution comes from the jobs at the heart of it: the miners who dug the coal to fire it, the ironworkers who built industrial America, and the railroad workers who crisscrossed it.

In 1860, America had 158,157 miners; in 1910, there were 903,869. In 1860, there were 39,822 iron and steel workers; in 1910 — the year work began on Woolworth Building, which became the tallest building in the world at the time — there were 900,443.

In 1860, the census didn’t even have a category for “steam railroad employees,” just “railroad men,” and there were only 36,567 of them. By 1910, there were 1,084,544 “steam railroad employees,” making it the fifth single largest occupation of the time.

Wages reflected the boom in jobs. A Pennsylvania coal miner earned $1.16 a day in 1860. By 1899, he earned $1.95 a day. An iron manufacturer eared 97 cents a day in 1850 but had more than doubled his salary to $2.03 by 1899. A Massachusetts railroad engineer earned $2.08 a day in 1860, but that same day’s work earned him $3.33 by 1900.

—Sandie Angulo Chen

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