In the colonial era, the most prestigious jobs were reserved for well-off white men, who secured 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, assisted in the land survey to establish the District of Columbia. Elizabeth Freeman, who successfully sued for her freedom in Massachusetts in 1781 (becoming the first person to win her freedom this way), worked as a midwife and nurse.
Here are six common types of jobs that people held in the 13 colonies and what they produced.
Wigs—or “perukes”—were an expensive, high-fashion accessory among wealthy men in the 13 colonies. This was particularly true for those who held high-status positions in the colonial government or military. Many wigmakers used horse hair imported from China to craft heavy, intricate hairpieces for their clients.
The trade didn’t last long past the colonial period, as wigs began to go out of fashion around the time of the American Revolution. Although many Americans assume George Washington wore a wig, he actually didn’t. His portrait on the one-dollar bill shows his real hair, just powdered and styled to look like a wig.
An apothecary was a drugstore owner who sometimes doubled as a physician or surgeon, depending on how available medical care was in the area. These workers attempted to treat customers’ maladies with medicines that they’d either made or imported.
A customer suffering from headaches might be given some coffee beans, as it was understood that coffee could help some (but not all) people’s headaches. A customer suffering from what we now call malaria might receive “Peruvian bark.” This medicine used bark from cinchona trees—which are native to the South American Andes—that contains quinine, which was one of the best treatments for malaria at the time.
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Printers published newspapers, pamphlets, books, almanacs and other publications during the colonial era. Probably the most famous printer from that era is Benjamin Franklin, who published his Poor Richard’s Almanack under a pseudonym between 1732 and 1758.
The first successful colonial newspaper was the Boston News-Letter, which ran from 1704 to 1776. This paper was subsidized by the British government and focused on news from Europe. In 1719, the rival Boston Gazette was founded. Under the leadership of Benjamin Edes and John Gill, who became the Gazette’s printers and publishers in 1755, the paper became a leading outlet for criticism of the British Empire and support for colonial independence.
4. Tavern Keeper
The earliest taverns in the 13 colonies were very similar to taverns in Britain, but they evolved to meet a variety of needs. They served as locations for social, political and business meetings, had rooms available for rent like an inn and also served as a marketplace to buy goods.
Many—perhaps most—tavern keepers were white women, and widows of prominent men were especially successful in gaining licenses to operate taverns. Tavern keepers might also own plantations and enslave Black people, forcing them to work in the keeper’s tavern. In addition to using the labor of enslaved people, taverns were also the sites of slave auctions.
Shoemaking and cobbling were important trades in the 13 colonies. Shoemakers usually specialized in certain types of shoes. For example, cordwainers were leather workers who made shoes out of leather. Cobblers were the people who repaired shoes when they became too worn.
In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, fashionable women’s shoes became politicized, as colonists the British government discouraged other colonists from buying British goods. In 1765, one Philadelphia shoemaker took out an ad aimed at women who wanted “to distinguish themselves by their patriotism and encouragement of American manufactures,” alerting them that he made “all sorts of worsted or wool shoes, of all sizes, as neat and cheap as any imported from England.”
When European colonists arrived in the Americas, they brought many nonnative animal species with them—including horses. Throughout the colonial era, horses were incredibly expensive animals that usually only belonged to wealthy white families. Saddle- and harness-making was therefore a fairly profitable trade, since most saddlers sold to rich people who wanted nice things.
Saddlers made different types of equipment depending on who their customers were and how they rode their horses. Hog skin was a good material for hunters because it helped keep riders seated when chasing after an animal (steer hide, on the other hand, became more slick over time and made it easier for riders to slip off). Saddlers also made sidesaddles for women to use while wearing dresses and racing saddles for horse jockeys.