A chandler, a fletcher, and a puddler walked into a bar…
Oh, you’ve heard that one?
When reading or writing historical fiction, we step back into time and back into worlds before us that abound with occupations unknown to us today. A chimney sweep was a real profession, not some mythical made-up occupation solely for use in Mary Poppins.
According to a list compiled by the Wise County Historical Society, a chandler is a “Dealer or trader; one who makes or sells candles; retailer of groceries”, a Fletcher is “One who made bows and arrows”, and a Puddler is a “Wrought Iron worker.”
Your characters occupation may seem insignificant, a mere minor detail that you use to fill in one line on your list of facts. Yet, this tiny scrap of information plays a vital role in shaping the character that you write about. After all, it was an important enough detail that occupations are listed on ship manifests and on census sheets.
Your character’s occupation can provide many clues as to the activities that make up their day to day life. The daily life of a man that owned the mercantile store in town would be vastly different from one that worked in a coal mine.
When I was researching Athelstan, Iowa and the 1934 quilt squares, for Memories on Muslin, I found a reprinted newspaper article that mentioned the stores in the early town. At one time Athelstan was a bustling little burg. Never as large as Bedford, the county seat 18-miles away, it still had its share of commerce. Besides the ‘gallon’ store on the Missouri side, it listed these businesses:
- Charles Merrill, drugstore
- Winston, drugstore
- Ace Nighswonger, general store
- Hal Brown, general store
- Miles Martin (first postmaster), general store
- J.W. & Pearl Townsend, store
- Sid Merriman, store
- Miles Martin (postmaster & general store owner), hotel
- Ed and Avon Johnson, butchers and sausage makers
- Flint and Coats, coopers
- Childres, first physician
- Schoenmann and Sons, lumber yard
I’d never heard of a cooper and had to look it up. According to Wikipedia, “Traditionally, a cooper is someone who makes wooden staved vessels of a conical form, of greater length than breadth, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. Examples of a cooper’s work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins, and breakers.”
Besides the job of cooper, which no longer exists today, many other occupations don’t exist anymore. Think switchboard operator, milkman, service station attendant, or iceman are just a few common occupations from not all that long ago that vanished with the changing times.
Many occupations may be familiar to us, even though they’re not in existence anymore. A tinker is an Itinerant tin pot and pan seller and repairman, a fish monger is a seller of fish, a bard is a poet or minstrel. Many occupations still have the same name today such as a mason is a bricklayer.
Its fun perusing the London Census 1891 Transcription Blog and reading some of the occupations listed at that time.
- An ‘ankle beater’ was a young person who helped to drive the cattle to market.
- A banker (not what you’d think) dug ditches to allow drainage, placing the surplus earth in banks.
- A battledore maker made the beaters used on clothes and carpets etc. to remove dust
- A bellowfarmer was a person responsible for the care and maintenance of the church organ.
- A bellows maker made the bellows used for organs or blacksmiths fires.
Just for fun, here are a few websites that mention other occupations that have disappeared, such as a knocker-upper, rat catcher, bowling alley pinsitter, or a lector, among others.
What are some of the weird jobs that no longer exist?
11 Jobs From 1850 That Are Totally Extinct
35 Important Jobs that No Longer Exist – Part 2
Old Jobs that No Longer Exist
10 Common 19th Century Occupations That You’re Not Likely to See Today
Free Dictionary of Old Occupations and Trades
Old Names of Occupations and Their Meanings
London Census 1891 Transcription Blog
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