As regular readers of this column know, I have a passion for old books and American history. The other day I was in Topeka and had the opportunity to visit the used book shop owned by my friend Lloyd Zimmer. While looking through his shelves I came across I book that I knew I had to own: “Cincinnati in 1851” by Charles Cist. This small volume contains a study of the population, industry and architecture of the city of Cincinnati 160 years ago.
Among the most interesting chapters is one on the various trades and professions carried out by residents based on the 1850 national census. Given all the attention in the media these days about the employment market, about what jobs are disappearing and what jobs seem like good bets for the future, I thought that this analysis of the job market in 1851 was fascinating.
To put it mildly, the nature of work in America, judged by this book, has changed greatly in the past century and a half. In 1851, Cincinnati had 1,569 bootmakers, 868 coopers (barrel makers), 2,318 carpenters, 40 daguerreotypists (photographers on silver-coated metal plates), 298 printers, 176 saddlers and 7,864 laborers. Among the more unusual jobs we see very little of today were 11 gilders, 130 riverboat pilots, seven bedstead makers, five bonnet pressers, 42 carriage drivers, and four city criers.
Today’s professions were well represented in 1851 Cincinnati. There were 10 architects, 11 professors, five civil engineers, 26 editors (presumably newspaper editors), 176 lawyers, 153 druggists, nine nurses, four opticians and 278 physicians. There were also 11 people who listed their profession as “gentleman,” one bishop, four patent medicine makers, two congressmen and 42 people who listed their occupation on the census as “thieves”!
To combat the latter there were 28 policemen, six magistrates, and two judges. To put these various numbers in perspective, it is important to know that the overall population of Cincinnati in 1850 was 115,000. Thus, there were only 278 physicians and 176 lawyers for 115,000 people.
Of course, these figures come from a time when the industrial revolution was just starting up in the western United States and when the word “outsourcing” had not been invented. It was also a period during which the idea of craft and being a craftsman was held in high regard. To be a carpenter, cooper or printer was to follow a proud trade.
There were office workers in Cincinnati in 1851; the census listed 1,853 “clerks” but it was not nearly so prestigious as being a member of one of the skilled trades. This was an America in which those who could make things and fix things were praised and held up as examples of success. It was a nation of “makers” and inventors and the 1850 census illustrates this fact.
The text accompanying these statistics also includes comments about the importance of immigrants to the U.S. economy: “To the industry of foreigners, Cincinnati is indebted In a great degree, for its rapid growth. Their presence here has accelerated the execution of our public improvements, and given an impulse to our immense manufacturing operations, without which, they could not have reached their present extent and importance.”
I think that it is extremely important for us to remember what made this great country great: hard-working folks, many of them who came to the U.S. seeking a chance to better themselves. These were people who took on whatever tasks needed to be done, took pride in their skills and the products they made, and understood that their labors would not only provide financial support for themselves and their families but would also make America great. There are lessons we can learn from them.