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Colonial America | Culture | Occupations

Colonial Americans were primarily farmers. Every family was expected to be self-sufficient—capable of growing crops and raising livestock for food. In addition, they spun their own thread and wool to make their clothes. They often made their own soap and candles.

There were also trades people who specialized in producing a specific product. Some occupational names were self-explanatory: locksmith, gunsmith, brickmaker, buttermaker, and broommaker, for example. There were also occupations with names that are recognizable today: coroner, bookkeeper, barber, weaver, baker, accountant, lawyer, and musician.

One common origin of
surnames is based on an
ancestor's occupation,
such as Miller, Sawyer,
or Turner.

Other colonial occupations include the following:


ALEWIFE: a woman who kept an alehouse or tavern


BARBER-SURGEON: one who performed surgery and was also a haircutter; in the 18th century an act was passed that limited barbers to haircutting, shaving, dentistry, and blood-letting

BLACKSMITH: a person who worked with iron, including the making and fitting of horseshoes

BOATMAN: a person who worked on a boat, mostly on canals and rivers; a boat repairer

BREWER/BREWSTER: a person who made beer, ale, and so on from malt and hops by steeping, boiling, and fermenting



A cooper is also known
as a barrel-maker.


CARDMAKER: one who made the handheld implement that was used for carding cotton and wool

CHANDLER: a person who made or sold candles; a retail dealer in groceries

COMPOSITER: a person who worked in a print shop, arranging individual letters of type by hand to form words

COOPER: a person who made or repaired barrels, wooden casks, kegs, or tubs

CORDWAINER: a shoemaker or leather worker

CURRIER: a craftsman who tanned leather with oil or grease


DRAPER: a dealer of cloths and dry goods


ENGRAVER/ETCHER: a person who cut or carved designs or lettering in metal or stone


FERRYMAN: a person who owned, managed, or worked on a ferry

FISHMONGER: a dealer in fish

FULLER: a person who shrank and thickened cloth by moistening, heating, and pressing it

Coppersmiths are also known as
greensmiths because, over time,
copper develops a pale green outer
layer called a patina that protects
the copper beneath it from corrosion.


GLOVER: one who made or sold gloves

GOLDBEATER: one whose occupation was to beat gold into gold leaf

GOLDSMITH: a craftsman who made objects out of gold

GROCER: a storekeeper who sold food and various household supplies

GREENSMITH: a worker in copper or latten (a thin sheet of metal or brass)


HOUSEWRIGHT: a carpenter or builder of houses

HUSBANDMAN: a farmer


INNKEEPER: the proprietor or manager of an inn

IRONMONGER: a dealer or trader in iron


JOINER: a skilled carpenter who did interior finish work by joining pieces of wood


MARINER: a sailor

MERCER: a person who dealt in costly fabrics, such as silks

MERCHANT: an occupation that involved the buying and selling of products

MIDWIFE: a woman skilled in the birthing process who assisted other women with the birth of a child

MILLER: a person who owned or operated a flour mill

MILLWRIGHT: a planner and builder of mills or mill machinery


PORTER: a person who is stationed at a gate or door; someone who
carries luggage

PRINTER: a person who owned or ran a print shop, where newspapers, pamphlets, books, and other printed matter were produced

ROPER: a person who made nets or rope


SADDLER: a person who made saddles, harnesses, horse collars, bridles, or other horse furnishings

SAWYER: a person who cut timber into logs or boards


SHIP MASTER: the commander or owner of a ship

SHIPWRIGHT: a skilled carpenter who built and repaired ships

STATIONER: a seller of books or writing items such as pencils, paper, and inkstands


A lathe, a tool used by a turner in
colonial times.


TAILOR: a person who made or repaired clothes

TANNER: a person who cured animal hides into leather

TAVERNKEEPER: the owner or manager of a tavern

TINNER: a person who worked in a tin mine (tin is a type of metal); a tinsmith

TURNER: a person who worked with a lathe


VINTNER: a wine merchant


WAGONER: a wagon driver

WAINWRIGHT: a person who built or repaired wagons

WHALER: a person who fished for whales

WHEELWRIGHT: a person who made or repaired wheels as well as wheeled vehicles such as carriages

WHITEWING: a street sweeper

WOOLCOMBER: a person who operated the machines that separated the fibers ready for spinning


YEOMAN: a farmer who owned his own land

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