Laurie Coulter

Extra! Extra!

In my experience, both as a writer and an editor, it's better to write too many words than too few. (Mind you, I once worked with an author who wrote 50,000 more words than we could fit in his book!) I wrote descriptions of 110 jobs for Cowboys and Coffin Makers, ten more than was necessary. I included all of them in the manuscript so that my editor could pick and choose. These are the leftovers.

Bicycle Maker

In the 1890s your factory mass produces bicycles. You make adult bikes as well as a children's version. Since children didn't play organized sports, cycling was very popular among both boys and girls who could afford a bike. Most of your competitors still employ machinists who use lathes and milling machines to make bicycle parts. This wastes metal and time. Your new stamping and pressing machines speed up production and lower the cost of your bicycles. To sell your bicycles, you use a new advertising medium, colorful posters. By the end of the century, though, the bicycle craze ends and your factory goes out of business. People still ride their bicycles to work, but they don't need a new bicycle every year. Rich people who cycled for fun now play golf and lawn tennis or spend their money on the latest technological toy — the automobile.


You collect plants, press them dry, glue them on cards, identify them, and store them in cases in a "herbarium." You need to be very organized to put all your specimens in the correct botanical order. Dr. Asa Gray, who began teaching the first botany classes at Harvard University in the 1840s, had more than 200,000 species in his herbarium.

Artisans don't understand what you do. "Picking up blossoms doesn't seem to be a man's work," a blacksmith told John Muir in 1867. That year the famous conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club hiked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, "botanizing" the entire way. Like Muir, most naturalists in the 1800s learned about plants and animals by studying them "in the field" rather than in a classroom.

Bull Whacker (Teamster, Freighter)

You're the nineteenth century's truck driver. Instead of a sixteen-wheeler, you drive a team of oxen pulling a wagon. Your freight wagon is loaded high with goods made in the eastern factories to be sold out west. You earn four times as much as a farmhand.

You don't actually whack the oxen with your long bull whip. You just crack it close to their heads as you walk along beside them. The firecracker-like sound and your yells are enough to scare the team into pulling harder going uphill or through wheel-sucking mud.

Clipper Ship Captain

No one knows when the Gold Rush will end, so the race is on to carry supplies and prospectors there as quickly as possible. Losing time means losing money to the competition. You and your fellow clipper captains are admired for driving your ships hard and fearlessly. Merchants pay you up to $3,000 for a single trip around Cape Horn to California and a bonus of $2,000 if you make the trip in less than one hundred days.

You plot the ship's course, forecast the weather, and know how to push your ship through fierce storms. High winds are your chance to go faster, but you must know just how much wind can fill your sails before they are ripped apart. The smallest mistake can splinter your masts or sink your ship.

Young men can make more money working in a factory or in a shipyard, so most of your crew are inexperienced immigrants. If you are a good captain, you feed them well and treat them fairly. If you are not, you look the other way when the mates beat them for not moving cargo or climbing the rigging quickly enough.

When you reach California, your gold-mad sailors may run off to the "diggings," leaving you with no one to sail your ship back home. Since merchant seamen have the shortest life expectancy of any nineteenth-century worker, who can blame them?

Clock Factory Worker

You used to work as a journeyman in a small clockmaking shop. All the clocks were custom made. Customers came in, ordered a particular kind of clock and you made it with two hands and one foot. Your foot powered a large pedal, or treadle, that drove a wood-shaping machine called a lathe.

Now you work in a factory with about ten other workers. Your employer has copied Connecticut inventor Eli Terry's new factory process for making clocks. You use water-powered machines to mass-produce wooden clock parts. The parts fit together to make the same clock over and over again. Factory clocks are made much more quickly than handcrafted ones, which means they can be sold more cheaply.

Peddlers sell the cheap wooden clocks to farm families. They don't need a clock since they get up and go to bed with the sun, but owning one shows their neighbors and relatives that they are doing well. It's a status symbol. Besides, they can pay for the clock in a new way — buy now, pay later. They buy it now and pay for it the next time the peddler comes by.

Iron Puddler

Don't let the name fool you. This is a big bold job. It has nothing to do with splashing water around.

You work in an ironworks. After the raw iron ore has been shoveled into giant blast furnaces and turned into pig iron, you clean it in your puddling furnace. It's a bit like washing dirt out of a T-shirt by hand except you use fire and air instead of water and soap. You "rabble" (stir) the molten mass of iron with a long hoe-like tool until it begins to thicken into a ball. You know by the feel of the ball how hard to stir or when to lower the heat. The floor is so hot that you have to wear shoes with thick wooden soles. For two hours, you rabble away. Then at just the right moment, you take the 60- to 80-pound puddle ball out of the furnace with giant tweezers connected to a chain hanging from an overhead track. You guide the ball over to the mammoth steam hammer, where any remaining impurities are beaten out of it before it is rolled out into bars or rails. Needless to say, you are one hot, sweaty guy with muscles of iron.


"Who asked you to crack my lice?" you roar as a fellow riverman accidentally knocks your head with an oar. Is this just a tough-guy act to shock the traveling preacher onboard? Or are you bored with the slow journey downriver and wish your captain would drop off the preacher and pick up a traveling fiddler?

On a flatboat loaded with freight, you can only travel downstream. It would be too difficult to row or pole your raft-like boat upstream against the current. Along the way, you pass settlers traveling to the frontier with their wagons and belongings piled high on their own flatboats. Sometimes peddlers who have traded their horse and wagon for a boat will yell across the water trying to sell you something you don't need. Mostly, though, you come across keelboats, regular boats that are pushed along with poles, each one loaded with barrels and wooden crates. Sometimes the crew has to tow their riverboat over sandbars and around rocks and fallen trees. Then you know why you're called an "alligator-horse." In this job, you're half-alligator and half-horse.


If you like connect-the-dots and geometry, you might want to think about becoming a surveyor. You will always have more work than you can handle. All the land west of the Appalachian Mountains is being divided up into squares like a giant checkerboard. You measure out the squares with a special chain and an instrument that measures angles. Then you put stakes in the corners of each square and mark their positions on a map. Without you, settlers wouldn't know where their land ends and their neighbor's begins. Surveyors also lay out towns and figure out where new roads should go. The first baseball diamond? Laid out by a surveyor, of course, in 1845.

Typesetter (Compositor)

You stand all day spelling out words with metal letters. Until machines took over the job, a writer's handwritten or typewritten words had to be "set" in metal type by hand. With one hand you hold your composing stick (a little like a Scrabble tile holder) and with the other you pick out the letters and punctuation marks you need to reproduce the writer's words. When you have filled your stick with one line, you slide it off onto a "galley." This metal tray is the size of one book page. After the galley is full, it is printed off on a proof press. A proofreader compares the proof with the writer's copy. If you've done your work well, your proof is "clean" and is ready for the printing press.

Weather Forecaster

Once telegraph lines started being strung across North America, it became possible to forecast the weather for the first time. Before then, people in one area had no way of warning people in another area that a storm was blowing their way.

In the late 1870s, you are an observing sergeant with the U.S. Signal Service. You work at one of more than 200 new field stations across the country. Three times a day, you telegraph your weather observations to the National Weather Service office in Washington, D.C. It then telegraphs forecasts to newspapers, railroad stations and rural post offices, which put up "Farmers' Bulletins" in front of their buildings.

Weather forecasting is a new science. Suspicious people living nearby blame the "new-fangled" instruments on your station roof for any bad weather.

art by Martha Newbigging © 2017

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