Friday, January 5, 2018

Old West Employment: Well Beyond Sheriff, Livery Owner, Saloon Keeper, Cowboy and Rancher, by Kristin Holt

by Kristin Holt, USA Today Bestselling Author

Have you noticed the list of "favorites" in Western Historical  Romances? The Top Fifteen Jobs held by men (and women) in the Old West? Based upon wholly unscientific research, it seems to me the majority of Heroes (and Heroines) bring home the bacon as one of the following:

  1. Lawman: Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff, City Marshal
  2. Pinkerton, Lady Pinkerton
  3. Livery Owner
  4. Saloon Keeper
  5. Saloon Girl
  6. Cowboy, Rancher
  7. Banker
  8. Bounty Hunter
  9. Outlaw
  10. Miner
  11. Teacher
  12. Boardinghouse / Hotel Owner
  13. Pastor
  14. Shopkeeper
  15. Fancy Lady / Soiled Dove / Fallen Woman
This list of "usual options" barely scratches the surface of true-to-history sources of income. Just like today, when men and women work at unique, different, interesting careers and vocations, people in the nineteenth century did so, too.

After all, somebody had to paint those signs merchants hung up on Main Street.
Signs might not be a surprise... but have you thought about upholsterers? Furniture Repair?

And builders of various kinds:

Women were often sought for "women's work" such as nursing the ill, seamstresses, cooks, housekeepers (private families and hotels).
 As evidenced by this coach shop interior finishing job reference, women were employed in the 19th century west in far more ways than one might expect:
Did you know many growing Old West cities had "Paper Binderies"? With plenty of business, they must have taken on jobs from a local printer, or from a businessman who wanted specialty ledgers. What else do you suppose they bound? Court records? (I've seen the bound volumes covering historical court cases.)

We're far from through! This "Business Cards" Section is precisely what it sounds like... business cards. The kind your dentist or doctor might have on their receptionist's counter. They served to advertise their business and location, along with specialties, in a section of the local newspaper. The following five images come from the Cortland Register of Cortland, Kansas on July 8, 1892.

Photographer! Plasterer! Post Master! Lumber Co.! Confectionery And Eating House! Bank Manager, General Merchandise, Pharmacist, and Hardware:
Two more General Merchandise establishments, a livery, a Meat Market (important!), a "Tonsorial Artist" (hairdresser), Physician & Surgeon, Grain sales, Shoemaker, Exchange Bank, Well Borer (can you imagine living without one of those?), and Paper Hanger.

Island Rock Elevator (Grain Company), Butler House (hotel or lodging), Millinery & Dress Making, Blacksmith (Horse-shoeing a Specialty), Racket Store, Stock Buyer (that beef must come from somewhere), and Well Boring and Rock Drilling:

Nursery (trees, plants), another Blacksmith, Stock & Grain, Lumber Yard (referenced location), Restaurant & Bakery (with a fine line of confectionery), Blacksmith, Notary Public (naturally!), Insurance Agent (surprised?), Grist Mill (no surprise there), Stock and Grain (again), and City Millinery (and Dress Making).

"Job Office" (neatness & dispatch; Printer), and a little more about Mrs. Wm. Campbell's City Millinery (at the bottom of the previous snipped image).

I'll add a few more I've seen in such "Business Cards" and advertisements in 19th century newspapers in the Western States and Territories:

1. Soda Fountains (usually in a pharmacy, or in rare situations, in a bakery or sweet shop), soda jerk
2. Land Office
3.  Assayer Office
4.  Professional painters
5.  Midwives
6.  Confectioners
7. Engravers (to make the pictures reproduced in newspapers)

8.  Jewelers & Watchmakers (and repair)

9. Bicycle Shops, repair
10. Beekeepers
11. Cement Companies (concrete)

12. Moving and Storage Companies (such as personal household moves)

13. Freight Companies (to move products for sale)

14. Dentist

15. Firemen, firefighters (if only volunteer)
16. Tailors (for men)
17. Musicians (whether for band or orchestra concerts, traveling musical shows, or paid performers at weddings, dances, etc.). These musicians often tuned pianos, sold musical instruments, and/or gave music lessons for hire.

18. Female Authors (for eastern magazines and presses)

19. Green Grocer (vegetables from local farmers or refrigerated rail cars)
20. Roller Skating Rink Proprietors

21. Theaters (proprietors, management, ushers, ticket sales)
22. Bath House
23. Wood Delivery

24. Coal delivery

25. Barber (Men's, including shaving services)
26. Hat Shop (men's--haberdashery, women's--millinery)
27. Brickyard

28. City Impound Lot (for wandering animals)
29. Dance Instructors
30. Undertaker (and furniture builder, who often built caskets)

 31. Judge, Lawyer / Attorney

32. Cooper (barrel maker)
33. Wagon shop (repair, new construction), Wheelwright
34. Handyman
35. Shingle Manufacturer

36. Laundry
37. Sawmill

38. Planing Mill

39. Farrier (craftsman who trims and shoes horses' hooves)
40. Newspaperman and Newspaper Printer
41. Museum and Menagerie

42. Water Delivery
43. Iceman (delivery)
44. Tobacco Shop
45. Surveyor / Civil Engineer

46. Stone Masons and Quarriers

47. Bone Collectors (buffalo bones on prairie)
48. Railroad workers of many varieties (station master, engineer, track layers, switchmen, firemen (kept the steam engine fires going), etc.)
49. Bridge Builders

50. Telegraph Operator
51. Hello Girls
52. Typewriter Girls
53. Brewers

54. Whisky Distillery

55. Harness Shop, Saddle Maker

56. Stage Driver
57. Wet Nurse

58. Stationery Shop
59. Gunsmith

60. Plumber

61. Phrenologist
62. Lecturer

63. Patent Medicine Salesman
64. Drummer (traveling salesman)
65. Public Library
66. Bookkeeper
Construction Laborer

68. Exterminator
69. Architect and Builder
70. Marble works (gravestones)
71. Veterinarian
72. Waitress in first class hotel restaurant
73. Grain Mill (someone must make flour)
Whew! That's quite a list! Maybe only authors of Western Historical Romance care about such things... but I imagine fans of the genre do, too.

What additions would you make to my "Usual Culprits" list?

What additions would you make to my True-to-History, Different Employment list?

Have you read a recommendable title with a hero or heroine working in an atypical Old West job?

Please share this article with others who might find it informative or helpful.

Interested in more about the Old West? Visit my cache of articles about everything Old West-- especially as it relates to Sweet Western Historical Romance:

Hi! I'm Kristin Holt, USA Today Bestselling Author.
I write frequent articles (or view recent posts easily on my Home Page) about the nineteenth century American West–every subject of possible interest to readers, amateur historians, authors…as all of these tidbits surfaced while researching for my books. I blog monthly at Sweet Romance Reads and Sweet Americana Sweethearts. I love to hear from readers! Please drop me a note. Or find me on Facebook.

Copyright © 2018 Kristin Holt LC


  1. Wonderful article, Kristin. Very informative.

  2. I was waiting for barber, because, my daddy was one, but, not in 1800's. LOL He was born in 1907 and died in 1957.

    1. Yes! Barber is #25 on my list... hidden between too many advertisements from way back when. Barbers (who shaved men, too) were a big part of the Old West economy. Wow, your father passed away far too early. Just fifty! That's YOUNG.
      Thanks for stopping by, Linda!

  3. What you can find, it you take the time to look. That is one of the reasons I love old newspapers and city directories. Thank you for hunting out the list. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. You're so right. Wonderful, vintage resources, brimming with information writers (and readers) find helpful. I'm glad you liked this post! Thanks for stopping by.

  4. You really did great research. So interesting!

    1. Thanks, Connie. I'm glad you found this article interesting. (I certainly did!) Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. VERY much appreciated. =)

  5. Wow I never realized all of the different employment during that time.

    1. Hi Gina!
      So glad you stopped by. Like you, I was blown away by the sheer "modern" volume of work people did in the 19th century. Makes for a wider range of options for fiction. =)

  6. This is amazing! I had no idea! I would love to run a livery and many other things! Thank you- love these old newpapers!

    1. Hi Lori!
      Thanks so much for reading, and for your feedback. So glad you enjoyed.
      Thanks for contributing!

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