Work Week: Local jobs -- 150 years ago

albany lumber district 1875

Maybe there would have been a job for you in Albany's booming lumber district.

By Carl Johnson

Some folks have argued that our area, now christened Tech Valley for its apparent boom in nanotech, computer chips, and pharmaceuticals, has been a tech valley all along, going back to the introduction of an amazing bit of transportation technology called the Erie Canal. But it's fair to say that the job options brought about by the current boom, most of which seem to involve lab coats and neoprene gloves, are a far cry from the job options brought about by any earlier boom in the Capital District.

Imagine it's 1863, and you're a young Albany resident ready to join the workforce. You might have had some schooling, if your family could afford it; school rates weren't abolished until 1862. You probably didn't have any high school, as the city's first free high school didn't open until 1868.

Did it matter? Not much -- very few jobs of the day required anything by way of schooling. They were more likely to require some form of apprenticeship, a medieval form of on-the-job training (and a bit of serfdom) all but lost now.

So, what might you have set out to be, 150 years ago?

The jobs that are still familiar
There were a lot of jobs that still exist, or at least are familiar to us today: boatman, mechanic, photographer, mason, carpenter, tobacconist, stonecutter, or blacksmith, for example.

We may not have many coppersmiths like Adam Gray, or bookbinders like William Bain, but there's a good chance that a paperhanger like John Hargadon could still find work pasting up wallpaper today.

The jobs that don't sound familiar
There were a number of other jobs that we might have to think about. Residents of Albany were listed in the city directory as coopers, curriers, milliners, teamsters, and lastmakers. There aren't too many barrel-makers, hat-makers, horse-team drivers, or shoe-form creators anymore; there were a lot of them in 1863. But once you know what they did, it's easy to understand what they were.

The jobs that are gone
A number of common jobs from that time are just gone. Patrick Bacon was a "coalheaver"; he might have to find something else to do if he were alive today. Bootmakers like L.G. Haywood, or shoemakers like Conrad and Lawrence Hecker would find little employment. Harnessmakers are pretty much gone, though 1863 Albany had more than a handful, and saddlers as well, selling their wares on Broadway.

There are no more watchmakers or boilermakers, no railroad agents, and any draughtsmen would be working with very different materials. Even the current effort to resurrect Albany ale probably doesn't have a dedicated maltster, but in 1863 Thomas Bain was one of many in the city. Bookbinders? Albany was lousy with them. Edmund Hardie was far from the only sailmaker in the city, even in the age of steam.

The specialized jobs
And there were some highly specialized jobs: Charles Baillie the marble polisher, Thomas Gunton the stocking weaver, and Francis Hesse the weaver of coachlace, a woven trim used in carriage upholstery. Gardiner, George and James Hendrie all worked as morocco dressers, a style of leather preparation used for furniture, book binding, and shoes.

Many men in the directory were just listed as "laborer." It was a catch-all job in a time when labor was an essential part of any business, and back-breaking labor was not just the lot of immigrants. Along the Erie Canal, in Albany's bustling Lumber District (then the largest in the world), in the burgeoning stove and steel foundries, the piano factories, and the dozens of industrial works that lined the river, a man who could work was a man who could find work.

There were some specialized forms of labor, like moulders, slaters, brickmakers, and furnacemen, but all of these jobs in 1863 were hard labor.

Jobs for women
If you were a woman, your options were more than a little limited. There were milliners, dressmakers, and tailoresses. Some were teachers, and some were music teachers.

If a woman wasn't engaged in one of these jobs, her only chance to be listed in the directory was as "widow."

Skilled and professional jobs
So if a man didn't want to break his back, what were his options? There were few technical jobs, though Anthony Hedley ran a telegraph repair business from his home. Printers abounded and occupied a special place in society between labor and intelligentsia.

Professional jobs didn't require nearly the level of schooling they do today, but still generally required some. There was a handful of physicians. There was Robert Harris, the US deputy tax and duty collector, and Samuel Harris, the county sealer, who also dabbled in wooden ware manufacture on the side. Williams D. Huntly ran the experimental department of the State Normal School, about as high in the teaching bureaucracy as it was possible to rise then.

And of course there was a merchant class, like Moses Hanlein the grocer, Harders Harwich the butcher, or Edward Harley the dry goods dealer. There were some bookkeepers and clerks as well; these were as close to white collar jobs as one was likely to find.

Carl Johnson writes about local history and life at Hoxsie! and My Non-Urban Life.

photo: "Frank A. Jagger Lumber Boat at Albany Lumber District," circa 1875, from the collection of the Albany Institute of History and Art.


Is there a resurgence in hipster artisanal barrel-making yet?

Know a man by the name of Wildman Bill who put down the slate on the D&H/SUNY building a few years back. Straight out of the 19th Century. Walked from Albany to Johnstown. Have not seen him since.

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