What jobs were unique to the Renaissance era? And Colonial America?
November 15, 2013 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Obviously innkeeper, bartender, tailor, etc. were jobs of both of those eras (and virtually all other eras, including our own.) But I am trying to figure out jobs that only existed in these two specific eras (Renaissance and Colonial). The sort of thing I am looking for: ie. specific jobs for specific eras: atilliators (who made crossbows in the middle ages); lamplighters; and "board boys" (who manually posted stock quotes in brokerages in the early 1900's. )

**I hope the way I phrased the question isn't confusing-- I don't want a single job that existed in *both* Renaissance AND Colonial. But jobs unique to the Renaissance and then separately, jobs unique to Colonial America.
posted by tangyraspberry to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
posted by DoubleLune at 9:54 AM on November 15, 2013

There were a lot of jobs that you can track down from Colonial times when you look at old town histories. The one I think of, because I had a relative who did this, was hog reeve (the person whose job it was to track/apprasie swine damage). There were also deer reeves. Other colonial jobs still exist in various slightly different formats

- fence viewer - the people who settled boundary disputes. We still have these, sort of, but they were also Colonial jobs.
- cordwainer - someone who made shoes but this job was separate from a cobbler who only repaired them, at the time. Archaic term, job still exists.
- measurers of wood and bark - making sure wood brought into town for sale was fairly measured. We still do have forest wardens in New England, though they are not the same.
- tithing man - the guy who would arrest you if you were out on the sabbath unless you were going to/from church
- water baliff - to keep the seashore from being annoying (?)

These are just from New Hampshire. Googling some of those terms, especially the hog reeve one will bring you to other lists of colonial jobs. This page was the source for that list and includes other jobs like coopers (made barrels, they still exist as tradespeople), broommakers (likewise, though these are mostly manufactured) and blacksmiths (still exist though far less central to a community.
posted by jessamyn at 10:08 AM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by Tanizaki at 10:09 AM on November 15, 2013

Astrolabe- maker?
posted by winterportage at 10:11 AM on November 15, 2013

Town Crier?
posted by COD at 10:19 AM on November 15, 2013

Wet nurse?
posted by spunweb at 10:29 AM on November 15, 2013

Knocker-upper (to wake people up before the days of alarm clocks)
posted by exogenous at 10:32 AM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Nail maker
posted by hworth at 10:54 AM on November 15, 2013

There was big business in Colonial America making charcoal, pine tar, and turpentine out of pine trees. A lot of that happened in the South and the main labor doing it were slaves, but it was also big in the North. It was a big export product back to Great Britain.

Charcoal was used as a fuel by metal workers and glass workers. Tar was needed to paint ship's bottoms.

As an industry it was made obsolete by the rise of fossil fuels, particularly coal.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:20 AM on November 15, 2013

Caulker - The guy on a boat that just sealed the seams with pitch to keep it water tight.

Victualler - the person who supplied ships with their provisions

baby farmer - (although mostly Victoria era I think) a baby was lived with and cared for by someone for pay. Some were legit, others not.

Saltpetre man- Collected urine and dung for the manufacture of explosives. He would go door to door (the same way a milk man would) but to collect containers on doorsteps. 17th century.
posted by beccaj at 11:22 AM on November 15, 2013

Whaling was big business in Colonial America. It, too, was rendered obsolete by the rise of fossil fuels. The primary economic drive for developing petroleum in the mid 19th century was to create kerosene for lamps, as a substitute for whale oil.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:23 AM on November 15, 2013

Knocker-upper is still a job in fraternities and sororities where everybody sleeps in a cold air dorm. It's not a paid job, and it's usually done by pledges, but it is a needed job still in that specific environment.
posted by COD at 11:25 AM on November 15, 2013

Mostly Uniquely Medieval
Some of these jobs may have begun earlier and / or lasted into the early modern era.
  • Fletcher (arrow maker)
  • Bowyer (bow maker)
  • Scribe (secretary to a person of influence who is illiterate)
  • Crier / Bellman (reads public documents to illiterate public)
  • Jester / Foole (a very specific entertainment niche)
  • Poacher (there are still royal forests, but it's no longer a capital crime to hunt the king's deer)
  • Cutpurse (replaced by pickpockets)
  • Thatcher (makes and repairs roofs made of straw)
  • Alchemist (when distinct from a charlatan or mountebank)
  • Page (apprentice knight)
  • Besommer (broom maker)
  • Pissprophet (diagnoses illnesses via urine)

posted by Herodios at 11:28 AM on November 15, 2013

(I should mention that charcoal making wasn't actually unique to Colonial America; it was also big business in Scandanavia.)

Something that truly was unique to Colonial America was collection of bog iron. This was a big thing especially in Massachusetts. There were a lot of shallow ponds full of rotting vegetation, and the water there is full of iron. Chunks of iron ore would form in them, and they could be collected without having to dig, so it was cheap and convenient. Until it ran out.

It was the basis for an early iron industry in North America.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:32 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Colonial era broadly defined: Chancey and the Grand Rascal is set in the US midwest in the early 19th century. A minor character is described as a "chair-bottomer". I believe those who plied this trade may also have been called "caners".
posted by Herodios at 11:35 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ohh,, just those 2 eras, sorry.

limner - someone who illuminates manuscripts

sperviter - a keeper of sparrow-hawks

potboy - cleans out chamber pots

link boy - boy who will carry a torch to guide people through the night

hurdle maker - made 'wattle fences' for sheep

lancier - a maker of lances

tenter - an unskilled workman's assistant
posted by beccaj at 11:37 AM on November 15, 2013

Here's a collection of guild rolls from Lancashire, spanning 1397-1992. The occupation listings are spotty for earlier times and not specific to America for later times, but there are some that will probably be of use.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:42 AM on November 15, 2013

Chandlers, wainwrights/cartwrights, ropemakers.
posted by mareli at 12:17 PM on November 15, 2013

Here's another list of early jobs in Chelsea MA which was Boston at the time. You can see there are split out jobs for the people who determine the sales of various goods are accurate and fair (leather sealer and hemp/flax sealer) and also to deal with the large number of livestock and other animals (pounder who runs the pound, these jobs still exist, hayward who minds the cattle and their fencing, not so much). According to this article there were also inspectors for things like vinegar, hay and barrels.

It gets a little weird because unless you had a municipal sort of "job" most people were farmers or tradespeople of some kind and the idea of a job as something delineated from the rest of your life wasn't quite as big a deal as it was in post-industrial America.

And I don't have any documentation that this "job" existed in American but in England at the time, you could be a self-proclaimed witch hunter.
posted by jessamyn at 12:32 PM on November 15, 2013

You'd think there would be a specialized term beyond ruff-maker for people who produced those insane John the Baptist collars affected by the Elizabethans-- 'ruffler' may have begun that way, but became a term for a kind of beggar who looked "like an army officer but actually robbed people at sword point."
posted by jamjam at 12:45 PM on November 15, 2013

Groom of the Stool!
posted by mibo at 2:00 PM on November 15, 2013

A lot of these are still jobs although maybe not in mainstream America. There are still town criers, nail makers, victuallers, and thatchers.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:48 PM on November 15, 2013

Bear baiter?
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:17 PM on November 15, 2013

(Bear baiting's heyday was in Renaissance England, and it was on the wane as the Renaissance ended, though wasn't banned until the 1830s. Sadly, it does still exist today in other parts of the world, so I guess it doesn't qualify.)
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:22 PM on November 15, 2013

Lute maker (luthier, in the original sense of the world)?
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:23 PM on November 15, 2013

"Renaissance" is tricky, because from the point of view of the economy, and therefore of jobs/trades, there was a great deal of continuity from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the industrial era. (Carlo Cipolla's Before the Industrial Revolution is a good introduction.) The Renaissance, as Charles Nauert pointed out in Humanism and the Cultures of Renaissance Europe, was a cultural movement that originated in an area that had been on the periphery of high medieval civilization, but that was growing in economic power and (as Lauro Martines pointed out a couple generations ago in Power and Imagination) was looking to assert itself culturally.

When "Renaissance" is taken as a period definition, it's usually framed in terms of Petrarch (1304-74) to the Reformation or the 1527 Sack of Rome. And I'm hard pressed to think of trades or jobs that existed only during that period, not before or after. Manuscripts, for example, were limned well before the 14th century.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:05 PM on November 15, 2013

See the List of Arcane Occupations, posted on MeFi ten years ago. The original link is down, but the site can still be viewed on the Wayback Machine. It also spawned a couple of interesting threads on languagehat, here and here.
posted by verstegan at 6:18 AM on November 16, 2013

Gong farmer (also known as "nightsoil man"), which entailed digging the human shit out of full cesspits, gutters, etc by hand, was a job pretty distinct to the pre-sewer era. Though I suppose you could argue that the difference between that and a modern septic pumper is mostly a matter of scale and tools.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 1:12 PM on November 16, 2013

There's a group of Channel 4 documentaries (available on YouTube) called "The Worst Jobs in History" that discusses many of the above mentioned and more, such as picking oakum, albeit from a British perspective.
posted by dreaming in stereo at 8:47 PM on November 16, 2013

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