19th Century Career Advice

By Eilene Lyon

Illustration for “The Author,” one of 88 mid-19th century careers described in the two-volume Popular Technology or Professions and Trades by Edward Hazen, A.M.

If you’re looking for a detailed understanding of what it took to a butcher, a baker, or a candle-stick maker, Hazen’s books are just what you need.  You can also learn if you have what it takes to be a 19th century architect, gunsmith, or bookbinder.  These wonderful compendiums cover the gamut.  Hazen attempted to describe every known career path for the mid-century man.  He gives step-by-step methodology in most cases, and usually the history of each profession and trade as well.

No matter his position at birth, any man could aspire to whatever profession he seemed most suited for.  America was the  land of opportunity, after all.  With Popular Technology at hand, assuming he could read (or find someone to read it for him), he could match his talents with the job descriptions therein, and voilà, a new career was born.  It was like having your own personal guidance counselor.

Of course, it wasn’t really that simple.  Apprenticeships were usually required (and sometimes still are) in many skilled trades.  By the 1850s, special education and licensing were mandatory in most states for many professions.   Before that, in some places, anyone could declare themselves to be a doctor, for example.  Caveat emptor!

Hazen’s work is eminently readable.  You can get sucked into his world for hours.  Yours truly is wishing to be like the author above: spacious personal library, elegant furnishings, life of leisure, perhaps?

Here are a few excerpts:



  1. Although alcohol can be extracted from any substance containing saccharine matter, yet sugarcane, grapes, apples, peaches, rye, corn, and rice, on account of their abundance, and superior adaptation to the purpose, are more commonly used than any other. As whiskey is the chief article of this kind, manufactured in the United States, it will be selected to illustrate the general principles of distillation.

  2. Corn and rye are the materials from which this liquor is mostly extracted ; and these are used either together or separately, at the option of the distiller. The meal is scalded and mashed in a large tub : it is then permitted to stand, until it has become a little sweet, when more water is poured upon it, and, at a suitable temperature, a quantity of yeast is added. To aid in producing rapid fermentation, a little malt is sprinkled on the top…

  3. The ancients, however, knew nothing of alcohol. The method of extracting this intoxicating substance, was probably discovered some time in the twelfth or thirteenth century ; but, for many ages after the discovery, it was used only as a medicine, and was kept for sale exclusively in apothecary shops. It is now used as a common article of stimulation, in almost every quarter of the globe.



  1. THE chair was invented at so early a period, that its origin cannot now be ascertained. It was used by all the civilized nations of antiquity ; and some of their patterns for this species of furniture have been revived, with some modifications, in modern times ; for example, a stool for sitting at the piano, now called the X, is the lower part of a chair used in the Roman empire near two thousand years ago. The seat and back were stuffed with some soft elastic substance…
  2. In constructing chairs from these materials, the workman undertakes several at a time, say from one to two or three dozens. We may suppose, as is frequently the case, that he first cuts up a quantity of planks to the proper size for the seats, and reduces them to the proposed form and smoothness by means of the drawing-knife, adze, spoke-shaves, and sand paper. He next cuts the various pieces which are to compose the frame, to the proper length, turns the ends of those which need it, to make the joint, and bores the requisite holes with a lit. In putting the parts together, the joints are made to fit very closely, and their union is rendered permanent by means of glue.



  1. THE word stereotype is derived from two Greek words stereos, solid, and tupos, a type. It is applied to pages of types in a single piece, which have been cast in moulds formed on common printing types or wood-cuts. They are composed of lead and antimony, in the proportion of about six parts of the former to one of the latter. Sometimes a little tin is added.

  2. The types are set up by compositors, as usual in printing, and imposed, or locked up, one or several pages together, in an iron chase of a suitable size. Having been sent to the casting-room, the types are slightly oiled, and surrounded with a frame of brass or type-metal. They are then covered with a thin mixture of finely pulverized plaster and water. In about ten minutes, the plaster becomes hard enough to be removed.

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