Want a Job in 1816 Pittsburgh?

You Better Take This Quiz

Many common occupations have gone to pasture

No doubt, it was easier to find a job in the past than today. But, say you went back 200 years. How easily could you land a job? 

Let’s send you back to 1816, when Pittsburgh first became a city.

Someone’s written a resume for you. So, that’s good. But, you probably don’t recognize half the occupations listed on it. The following quiz will help.

All the professions and trades are in a Pittsburgh directory compiled in 1815.

1. You are an experienced skin dresser. That means
2. You say you are a drayman. That means
3. As a milliner, you
4. You say you are a chandler. It’s not your name. It means
5. As a longtime glover, you
6. You want to be a white-smith rather than a black-smith because
7. As a nail cutter you have seen a lot of
8. You say you are a gentleman. That means
9. As a mantua-maker, you enhance the appearance of
10. Being a morocco dresser, you must know

If you got more than half correct, chances are good you will get hired in 1816. The War of 1812 (it lasted until 1815), with its interruption of shipping and trade, killed this young nation’s economy. Pittsburgh, however, was booming. The war made it a center of military supplies. It also reinforced it as the gateway to go after Indian land in the Midwest.

Making boots at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts the same way they did in Pittsburgh in 1816.

Making boots at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

Get the Job You Want

Think you’ll never fit in to 1816? Take heart. The names of the most common occupations will be familiar to you.

Let’s look closer at the directory. Just over 5,000 people were living on the patch of land we now recognize as downtown Pittsburgh. The directory lists about 1,500 heads of household there and how they put bread on the table.

Of those, 44 were shoemakers or bootmakers. If you ever had leather-soled shoes, you know they don’t last. Shoemakers didn’t have long-lasting, man-made materials to work with. So, there was plenty of shoe work to go around.

The past tense of shoe is shod, you know. So, if you do shoddy work, they will hire you.

Many widows became washwomen and keepers of boarding houses

Many widows became washwomen and keepers of boarding houses

A Window Into Widows

Widows are quite common in the directory.

Many operated boarding houses. It was a way to make ends meet after losing a husband. With the toll childbirth took, there may well have been far more widowers than widows, but no man is listed that way in the directory.

Men are listed by occupation not marital status.

Catharine Wilkins, of the family for which Wilkinsburg and Wilkins Township get their names,  got special treatment. She is listed as both a widow and a “gentlewoman.”

The next woman in line did not get the same respect. Jane Wilky is listed as a widow and a washwoman. She may have been a gentle washwoman, but it doesn’t say so.

One of the widows seems to have become a widow the moment she married.

The poor woman married a Corpse.

Seriously. Her name is Mary Corpse. You can find her on Penn Avenue between Hand and Irwin streets. She’s a “tayloress.” Mrs. Corpse makes suits, suits for men. I don’t know if they are living.

The most common professions among women were seamstress and milliner. No wonder. Remember, ready-to-wear, factory-made clothing was still a long way off for females.

Factory-made uniforms for the War of 1812 proved quite popular among men. Men’s simpler fashions lent itself to mechanized production. Women had to wait another century.

Interestingly, two men are listed as hairdressers in Pittsburgh. No women are.

Mute witness to a time when Pittsburghers of all sizes walked a very different city.

Mute witness to a time when Pittsburghers of all sizes walked a very different city.


If you need to get your hair done for your job interview, you can go to Edward Frethy on Front Street, between Wood and Market streets. If he’s busy, go to Edward Pratt on Wood Street, between Diamond Alley and Fifth Street.

By the way, if you think you can buy clothes at a clothier, you’re wrong. Clothiers make cloth.

You will have to go to one of the many tailors in town. Their signs may throw you off, though. They spell it “taylor.”

There also are many who made smooth white walls for all the new houses. You like to plaster? Well, they didn’t do that. They “plaistered.” And, they called themselves “plaisterers.”

It may have been the language influence of the people who founded Pittsburgh: the Scots.


EDITOR’S NOTE: You can look over the directory yourself here.