Trending: Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys

This is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, a reference specialist in the Main Reading Room.


In an example of work from the 1770s, two blacksmiths hammer steel bones for a pair of stays—an 18th-century women’s foundation garment—while a client is being fitted.


Career guidance takes many paths. In the 1970s, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings sang this advice from an Ed and Patsy Bruce song:

Mamas’ don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
Don’t let ’em pick guitars or drive them old trucks
Let ’em be doctors and lawyers and such
Mamas’ don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.

But vocational counseling must keep up with the times. For centuries, technological changes have transformed or eradicated jobs. Work as a lamplighter, bowling-pin boy or power monkey no longer exists, while new jobs like social media strategist and video game designer are on the rise, as a 2015 post on this blog pointed out. More recently, passionate discussions about artificial intelligence and robots replacing human endeavors have been much in the news.

The combination of Labor Day, robots taking over the world and the start of a new academic year inspired me to revisit age-old questions students and their parents confront over the issue of work: for students, what would I like to be when I grow up? What major should I choose to get a good job? Or, from a parent’s perspective, what should I encourage my child to study so she will be hired?

Title page from the 1757 edition of Campbell’s “The London Tradesman”

A couple years ago, while completing a short-term assignment in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, I became fascinated by a book that answers many of these questions—albeit from an 18th-century viewpoint. “The London Tradesman” by R. Campbell was first published in 1747. By 1757, it was in its third edition and, somewhat inexplicably, two different publishers reprinted the book in 1969. The balance of the title provides a better understanding of its scope: “Being an Historical Account of all the Trades, Professions, Arts, both Liberal and Mechanic, now practised in the Cities of London and Westminster, Calculated for the Instruction of Youth in the Choice of Business.”

Before getting to actual job descriptions, Campbell provides lengthy “Advice to Parents, to study and improve the Genius, Temper, and Disposition of their Children, before they bind them Apprentices.” He relates a sad tale of prideful parents forcing their boys into unsuitable positions—a would-be admiral, parson and attorney—all brought to a bad end. If the brothers could have simply swapped professions based on their natural interests and talents, this would have ended happily.

Glancing through the table of contents, you see that professions such as attorney and architect are still with us; whale-bone stay-maker, not so much. Brewers and distillers are having a resurgence, while wax chandler has evolved into a more artisanal occupation. In terms of changing technology, candlelight was replaced by gaslight and then electricity, but today entire shops are devoted to candles once again.

The “London Tradesman” breaks broad categories, such as “Of Painting in General,” into more specific classifications: drapery-painter; herald, house and coach painter; and colour-men, among them. House painters are still with us in abundance; herald and coach painters have gone the way of the snuff-box maker.

In case your curiosity was aroused by the term “drapery-painter,” here’s the basic description:

The Drapery-Painter is but the lowest Degree of a liberal Painter; he is employed in dressing the Figures, after the Painter has finished the Face, given the Figure its proper Attitude, and drawn the Outlines of the Dress or Drapery. A Portrait-Painter who is well employed has not Time to cloath his Figures, and therefore employs a Drapery-Painter to finish that Part of the Work.

Campbell includes descriptions of businesses; required qualifications, education and abilities; and wages. Some creative professions such as sculptor or musician have headings indicating that genius and talent are also required. Depending on the job, other headings reveal that temper and disposition, degree of strength and age or measure of knowledge or learning must be considered.

Contents page from “The London Tradesman.”

Campbell never hesitates to express his opinion of the character of those holding a particular occupation. Of herald, house and coach painters, he remarks, “The Journeymen of this branch are as dirty, lazy, and as debauched a Set of Fellows as any Trade in and about London.” Parents, don’t pick this job for your children!

Most of the occupations described are for boys, but certain jobs, such as millinery, are clearly designed for girls. There are, however, firm warnings to parents to think long and hard before sending their daughters into the hat business. “Take a Survey of all the common Women of the town, who take their Walks between Charing Cross and Fleet Ditch,” Campbell writes. “I am persuaded, more than one Half of them have been bred Milliners, have been debauched in their Houses, and are obliged to throw themselves upon the Town for Want of Bread.” Campbell maintains that private millinery shops are a gathering place for rakes and may be fronts for assignations or bawdy houses. There’s no job description for “common woman.”

Not all of the guidance is directed at parents. Campbell also provides “Advice to the young Apprentice how to behave during his Apprenticeship,” as well as “Lastly, Directions how to avoid the many Temptations to which Youth are liable in this great City.” This is clearly a good model for any handbook intended for an intern newly arrived in Washington, D.C.

It’s hard to say whether the U.S. Department of Labor knew about “The London Tradesman” when it began producing the “Occupational Outlook Handbook” in 1948. A standard reference source in schools and libraries, it is now released biennially online.

The handbook supplies a wealth of information on hundreds of occupations (architect, yes; milliner, no). Besides basic descriptions of jobs, pay and educational and skill requirements, it estimates the outlook for individual professions—particularly beneficial for college students pondering the big questions. Recent outlook statistics show a downward trend for travel agents and bank tellers, for example, but the prospects are rosy for information security analysts.

The handbook links to a career outlook site with the catchy heading “You’re a What?” It lists occupations including mystery shopper, polysomnographic technologist and genetic counselor, all developed in the last couple of decades. But Campbell would have been familiar with two jobs on the list: farriers and chimney sweeps.

Sadly, no advice is given to parents, but perhaps mamas will be happy to know that cowboy is not found in the A–Z list of occupations.

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