People's Jobs in the 1800s

by Vicki A. Benge; Updated September 26, 2017

The phenomenon known as the Industrial Revolution spread across different parts of the world at different times. In the Western World, industrialization on a large scale began in England. During the latter part of the 1800s in the United States, industrialization came to play a prominent role in the types of jobs people had, with industry much more widespread in the northeast than elsewhere in the young nation.


Prior to industrialization, the primary occupation of most workers involved some form of food production or basic survival. In many cases, the primary objective was to provide the family with food and other basic necessities. Even in the antebellum South, most people did not live on big plantations; 75 percent of Southerners never owned slaves, but instead lived on small plots of land where the entire family worked full-time at subsistence farming struggling to survive.

Jobs for Women

In the northern United States during the early part of the 19th century, most people also worked at feeding the family through farming. Women of all ages not only worked in the fields during harvest time, but handled household chores such as cooking, sewing, spinning, weaving, and tending children and livestock.

Textile Manufacturing

According to "The Oxford Companion to United States History," 3 percent of the population was employed in manufacturing jobs in 1800, mainly in textiles. Following the Civil War, the number of factories, especially in the textile industries, grew substantially in the Northeast. A cotton spinning operation formed in 1790, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was the nation's first permanent factory.

Manufacturing Expands

By the mid-1800s, manufacturing through a factory system had spread to other industries, including shoe and clothing production, slaughtering and meatpacking, and the heavy industries of iron and steel. Transportation infrastructures, specifically railroads built mainly by Irish and Chinese immigrants, began connecting parts of the country previously isolated from each other, promoting distribution of goods.

White Collar Jobs

In urban areas, there was an increasing number of white-collar jobs such as bankers, newspaper publishers, doctors, lawyers, ministers, shopkeepers and clerks. A growing number of artisans also migrated to urban areas and set up shops not only to practice a craft but to learn the ropes of entrepreneurship. Industrialization expanded and by 1910, 22 percent of the U.S. labor force worked in manufacturing, according to "The Oxford Companion to United States History."


  • "The Oxford Companion to United States History"; Paul S. Boyer, editor; 2001
  • "Western Civilization, A Social and Cultural History"; Margaret L. King; 2000
  • "Encarta Encyclopedia"; Microsoft; 2004

About the Author

Vicki A Benge began writing professionally in 1984 as a newspaper reporter. A small-business owner since 1999, Benge has worked as a licensed insurance agent and has more than 20 years experience in income tax preparation for businesses and individuals. Her business and finance articles can be found on the websites of "The Arizona Republic," "Houston Chronicle," The Motley Fool, "San Francisco Chronicle," and Zacks, among others.

Photo Credits

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