Proclaimed the ad: “Those who really want work, usually find it; those who are lazy, never find it.”
To mark Labor Day, I combed through Washington newspapers from the 1880s and 1890s in search of the sort of labors our ancestors performed. We might not recognize some of those jobs today, such as the one in this 1885 ad from the Critic and Record newspaper: “WANTED — A good skirt hand at Miss Hilbert’s. 810 Market space, near Ninth.”
Skirt hands — along with body hands and waist hands — were jobs at custom dressmakers, common in a time before J. Crew and Chico’s.
Classified ads in 19th-century newspapers were placed both by businesses seeking employees and by employees seeking jobs. “Situations Wanted” was the heading under which the latter category ran, as in: “LADY OF EXPERIENCE wishes situation either with dressmaker or private family; special attention to button-holes.”
A buttonhole is no easy task.
Going by the frequency with which the jobs turn up in the want ads, dressmakers, laundresses, chambermaids and cooks were in high demand.
Other interesting jobs speak out from a bygone era: “WANTED — Man who understands oyster shucking perfectly.”
Those oysters aren’t going to shuck themselves.
Some ads sound downright Dickensian, like this one from 1890: “WANTED — A young lad as errand boy; must come well recommended.”
The same language pops up in ad after ad: Applicants must be respectable, reliable, settled, trustworthy, competent, honest, well-recommended.
Often, they must be White. Washington newspapers would eventually divide their employment ads into jobs that were open to Whites and those that were open to African Americans, but in the 1880s and 1890s, the ads were intermingled.
And so one day in the 1889 Evening Star, you could find two coincidentally linked ads just a few inches from each other. The first: “WANTED — A strong reliable white woman to do the work for a family of two ladies; no washing or ironing; good home; must give best references.”
The second: “WANTED by a young colored woman: situation to do plain cooking in small family; willing to stay of nights; no washing or ironing.”
Did the two White ladies who didn’t need washing or ironing find the Black woman who didn’t want to do it? Probably not.
Advertisers were eager to describe exactly what sort of employee they wanted:
“WANTED — A stout girl to take care of 1 floor and make herself useful; wages $6.”
“WANTED — A good stout boy as press boy in printing office; wages small to begin with.”
“WANTED — A Catholic boy who is not afraid to work a little, to assist around store and attend horse and wagon, &c.”
“WANTED — A tall man to wear advertising coat and distribute cards. Apply at once at Strasburger’s Glass of Fashion.”
“WANTED — A poor old-aged woman for Small Housekeeping; German preferred.”
“WANTED — A settled middle-aged woman for general housework; one who is willing to go to the seashore for the summer.”
The seashore? Count me in!
Some of the “Situation Wanted” ads hint at fascinating backstories: “A YOUNG WIDOW in straitened circumstances wishes a situation as a housekeeper with a widower; no objection to country; no trifler need answer. Address WIDOW, this office.”
Don’t be wasting her time, triflers!
Or this one from 1892: “SITUATION WANTED — By a young lady just from England, a place as companion to an elderly lady; has traveled 7 months with a nobleman’s daughter; excellent seamstress; amiable; good dressmaker; would not object to delicate lady; unquestionable references.”
Why do I feel like this young lady murdered her last employer and will murder her next one?
Some of the ads for sales positions have more than a whiff of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and its “always be closing” mantra:
“WANTED — Salesmen agents to sell the automatic, economy, self-lighting gas burners; everybody buys them; $10 per day easily made by live men; five prize medals awarded.”
“WANTED — We want a few honest and intelligent persons to take orders in this and surrounding towns on ‘Stanley in the Wilds of Africa, and How He Rescued Emin Pasha.’ The intrepid Hero has just returned to civilization. Public interest in him is at fever heat. This is the Stanley Book the people want . . . Agents are just coining money.”
But the best jobs aren’t about coining money. One of my favorite ads was placed in the Star in 1890 by a woman named Rebecca Meade: “WANTED — By a first-class cook: a place to do nothing but cook.”
No washing, no ironing, no cleaning or selling. Just cooking. Rebecca knew: If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.