Your Grandpa did What?

Ever wondered what a chandler is (other than a character on Friends)? What exactly does an apothecary do? And what is a cordwainer?? Here are half a dozen occupations that once filled important needs.

Weaver: In 1719, an English weaver with the help of an apprentice might make 14 or 15 shillings a week, equivalent to around £100 today, but many weavers had only their own hands to depend on. The first experiments with power looms were attempted in the late 18th century, and by 1820 textile mills sprang up in both Europe and America, replacing the work of thousands who worked from their cottages.

Basketmaker: Made from a variety of materials, households relied on baskets to carry and store things well into the nineteenth century. The basket maker could choose from a variety of reeds or wood, depending on his or her locale.  Starting with reeds, willow branches or six-foot long strips of ash, hickory or cedar, he or she peeled them into long ribbons with a knife, then wove them between the spokes that made the basket’s frame.

Chandler: Prior to electricity, chandlers filled a crucial need.  The earliest candles were tallow-based, which created a reek so severe that their manufacture was banned within the city limits of Paris by the Middle Ages.  The highest quality candles in the nineteenth century came from beeswax or spermaceti (crystallized sperm whale oil), poured into metal molds until it cooled and hardened.  They burned brighter and smelled better than the old-fashioned tallow candles.

Apothecary: In the days before Walgreens, you might consult an apothecary when your home remedies failed.  Armed with mortar, pestle and a variety of ingredients from rose petals to mercury salts, they attempted to treat disease and infection. Professionally trained doctors and surgeons existed of course, but they were expensive (wow, some things don’t change) and before germ theory was accepted, their remedies might not be any more effective.

Cordwainer: The coolest name of an occupation ever! It is is the medieval term for shoemaker, specifically one who works only with new leather to make new shoes or boots.  Thus they differentiated themselves from cobblers, who repaired used leather items. Although the term had fallen into disuse in common speech by the nineteenth century, the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers was founded before 1272 in London and still exists.

Linen draper: No, not someone who made curtains. A draper did specialize in the sale of wool and other cloth, however.  Even the wealthy would visit the linen draper‘s to purchase new material, then carry it to a modiste or tailor to make it into dresses or a suit.

What is the strangest occupation you’ve ever heard of or read about?


2 thoughts on “Your Grandpa did What?

  1. The strangest one I’ve ever come across was Pure Finder: The occupation of collecting dog faeces for sale to tanneries (which I came across in The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson). Not a job I would want.


    1. Yeah, there were some pretty gross occupations out there, Mary. The ‘pure finder’ probably wasn’t a popular speaker for Career Day! 😉


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