Approximately 1,600,000 people resided in the thirteen colonies in 1760, the large majority of whom were tradespeople, shopkeepers and small farmers, according to the Web site History of the USA. The skills of these early American men and women were crucial to the forming of a new democratic country no longer dependent on its colonial government.
The Household Trades
Some of the many household needs of colonial families, such as basket making, might be met by the family members themselves. For other needs, they had to purchase items from someone who specialized in a trade. Shoemaking was one of the most common trades in colonial America, says the Colonial Williamsburg Web site. The shoemaker sold both ready-to-wear shoes and custom-made shoes. Tailors, who were almost always men, specialized in measuring and sewing garments for both men and women. Millinery, or the making of hats, was one of the few trades open to women in colonial times. In addition to making and selling hats, the milliner would also sell fabric and goods made from fabric. The gunsmith used the skills of many trades in the creation of firearms, and would have made and repaired other items that required casting, such as furniture hardware and harness fittings. Silversmiths, who fashioned bowls, urns, teapots and other decorative items, were regarded as artists.
The Building Trades
Much work went into the building of homes and other structures in the colonies. Brickmaking was a job that fell to unskilled laborers or indentured servants. In the case of wealthy landowners, the job was assigned to slaves, as Thomas Jefferson did when building Monticello. Carpenters were also important in a time when almost every structure was built from wood. They cut and joined timber to create homes as well as repaired existing structures. Cabinetmakers, who created fine furniture, were more likely to be employed in urban areas, since few could afford the best furniture.
The Rural Trades
Farmers in colonial times tended livestock and grew food for their families as well as raising cash crops of tobacco, corn, wheat and cotton. The farmers in turn were supported by the skills of those in other trades. A blacksmith, who made items from iron and steel, such as tools, locks, utensils and horseshoes, was invaluable to a community. Coopers or barrel-makers crafted casks to hold commodities like flour, tobacco or gunpowder for storage or for export to Britain. Wheelwrights provided the precisely measured wheels required for carriages and wagons.
Other Important Trades
In colonial times, an apothecary made house calls to sick patients and made and prescribed medicine. Besides dispensing medicine, the apothecary’s shop also sold many miscellaneous household items, similar to today’s drugstore. Without the power of the printer and his printing press, colonial Americans could not have organized to support the American fight for independence, notes the Colonial Williamsburg Web site. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
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