Unlocking History

Amalgamators, button makers and vaqueros: Jobs lost to time

Photos of blacksmith and wheelwright are show with a photo of barrel makers.
Blacksmiths, barrel makers and wheelwrights have virtually disappeared as major professions but at one time, they were the hot jobs of their day. (Photos: Covina Public Library, Sonoma Public Library and Santa Cruz Public Library.)

Historic San Quentin prison records give a glimpse into jobs lost to time.

When inmates were received at state prisons, physical characteristics were noted but they also logged the person’s occupation.

An 1887 San Quentin report reveals some forgotten jobs. Titled “Occupation of Prisoners when Received,” the report breaks down the job titles of 1,220 inmates. Inside CDCR takes a closer look at some of the jobs that no longer exist or have faded to obscurity as part of the Unlocking History series.


Man watches a machine process ore to capture gold.
Amalgamators referred to both the machine and its operators. This one, at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, could process 1,500 cubic yards of material daily. The gold-bearing dirt was washed through the machine, and the gold, coming in contact with a bath of mercury or a copper plate covered with mercury, was trapped and remained in the machine. Circa 1910-1920. (Photo: Taken from “A Trip to the Big Placers” pamphlet published by American Placer Mining Co. of Chicago.)

In the 1880s, stamp mills processed ore from the mines. Mercury, also known as quicksilver, helped separate precious metals from the less desirable material. Amalgamators were part of the team, earning $3.50 per shift in some larger operations. Chief amalgamators earned $4. Workers placed the slush into cloth bags and hand-squeezed the mercury from the mixture, leaving behind balls of gold amalgam.


Blacksmith holds big hammer to pound something on an anvil.
A blacksmith hard at work, circa 1900. (Photo: Covina Public Library.)

While still a profession today, it isn’t in such high demand as it once was. When America pushed west, blacksmiths were crucial since they were able to craft tools and mining equipment. They earned $50 to $60 per month at the time. In 1887, there were 18 listed at San Quentin.

Button maker

Women in a factory work machines to create buttons.
Workers drill holes in buttons, circa 1890. (Photo: Smithsonian.)

While no details are given on the listing, button makers used a variety of materials including ivory, wood and metal. They also made buttons for uniforms, complete with emblems, such as for the military. Working alongside them were button-hole hand stitchers, who cut and sewed button holes into clothing. An 1899 San Francisco newspaper advertisement sought a “button-hole maker on custom made coats.”

Cigar maker

Three men sit at a table working on cigars.
Workers at the Porterville Cigar Factory, circa 1900. (Photo: Porterville Public Library.)

This must have been a popular position since 24 listed it as their occupation. Cigar makers also taught apprentices. Working alongside the cigar maker and apprentice were box makers, tobacco strippers and cigar sorters.


Men making barrels in Asti, California.
California barrel makers, or coopers, circa 1900-1920. (Photo: Sonoma County Library.)

A cooper was someone who built or repaired barrels, casks, tubs and vats using metal hoops and wood in their craft. Barrels were the preferred cargo shipping containers of their time, transporting everything from alcohol to whale oil.


Horses and carriages in a parking lot at the beach.
A horse-and-buggy parking lot at Long Beach, circa 1905. Known as hackneys, or taxicabs by today’s standards, they were driven by hackmen. The occupation is one of many outdated jobs listed in an 1887 San Quentin report. (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)

While only one is listed in the report, the hackman was someone who drove a carriage, also known as a hackney. Passengers paid a fee for each trip, much like ride-share businesses today.

Harness maker

Sketch of a man building a harness.
Sketch of a harness maker at camp, Civil War, Harrison’s Landing, 1862. (Image: Library of Congress.)

As the name implies, this person built harnesses, usually for horses. There were 15 incarcerated at San Quentin. According to the 1880 Harness Makers Illustrated Manual, a harness maker earned around $300 per year. “The manufacture of saddlery and harness … stands 34th in the magnitude out of the 258 specified industries tabulated in the census report of 1870. At that time there were in the U.S. 7,607 saddlery and harness establishments, (employing) 23,557, producing goods to the value of $32.7 million,” the book states. According to reports in 1891, harness makers earned $2 to $4 per day.


Woman irons clothing in a newspaper sketch.
An 1899 San Francisco Examiner article took aim at working conditions in San Francisco laundry businesses. The article claimed employees suffered smoke, heat and humidity issues in buildings lacking proper ventilation.

While this job might appear to have something to do with forging or black-smithing, it is actually part of the laundry industry. An ironer was someone who could properly iron and press garments. Machines for pressing, called manglers, were in heavy use but their operators were paid far less than their hand-ironing counterparts. “The manglers are the great hungry machines — nests of cylinders heated with steam — into which the girls feed sheets and towels and such things at the rate of 10 or 12 a minute all day long, standing through their 12 hours,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 19, 1900. Quality ironers, according to reports, were difficult to find. San Quentin had seven on its list. In the 1890s, hand ironers were paid $20 to $35 per month, depending on the quality of their work. “The ‘hand-ironers’ are the women who handle the pieces which cannot be done on machines,” the paper reported.


San Quentin inmates work in a foundry.
San Quentin’s foundry, late 1930s. (CDCR file photo.)

Three were incarcerated at San Quentin. They usually worked in foundries where hot metal was poured to into molds to cast various products. The Risdon Iron and Locomotive Works advertised wanting molders but cautioned, “no members of the union will be employed,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 26, 1870. The year before, iron molders at the company went on strike because their pay was being reduced from $4 to $3.50 per day. San Quentin had a foundry as well.


Man holds hammer and taps nails in a shoe heel. A cat sits at his feet.
A shoemaker, circa 1840s or 1850s.

Today, most shoes are created using mass production factory methods but at one time, shoes were made by hand, one pair at a time. By the late 1800s, the custom shoemaker occupation, also known as a cobbler, was beginning to fade. “There’s 10 pair of ready-made shoes worn now to one 10 years ago. Othello’s occupation’s gone — that’s me, the custom shoemaker, (a man without purpose). All that remains for me to do is patch up, repair and make new shoes out of old, while you … and all the rest of mankind do the opposite as fast as they are turned out of the big factories,” a shoemaker told the San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 19, 1886. “One can buy a pair of shoes so cheap now ready-made that it hardly pays to get old ones repaired. We are not benefited by the strides of commerce and the new inventions for making shoes. … Shoe making is an art which takes years to master. I’ve been at it these 40 years.”

Stagecoach drivers

Men work to ready a stagecoach being pulled by six horses.
Drivers prepare a stagecoach in southern California, circa 1890. (Photo: Anaheim Public Library.)

These daring drivers crossed treacherous mountain passes, deserts and remote bandit-infested roads to get passengers, parcels and supplies where they were needed. Today’s equivalent job might be a truck driver.


Men stand in wood building, their aprons are stained.
A group of workers at McKay’s Tannery, circa 1905. (Photo: California State Library.)

Those who tanned and finished animal hides were known as tanners. Railroads often had tanners on call to help replace belts used in the steam-powered machinery.


Men with with tin in a shop.
Tinsmiths are hard at work crafting pipes, buckets and other items made from light metal, circa 1876. (Photo: Library of Congress.)

Tinsmiths, also known as tinkers, created items from light metals. Their creations ranged from cookware to washbasins and metal chimney pipes.


Man sits on a horse in a field of trees.
Vaqueros, such as this one photographed in Santa Barbara in the early 1900s, herded cattle in the west and were sometimes hired to train cattle ranchers. (Photo: Black Gold Cooperative Library System.)

There were 37 inmates who listed vaquero as their occupation. The vaquero drove cattle, particularly in the west, southwest and Mexico, but their traditions were rooted in Spain. When introduced to Hawaii in 1794, cattle flourished, eventually becoming a problem for farmers. To help manage the issue, Hawaii’s king hired vaqueros in the 1830s. They trained Hawaiians to herd cattle and ride horses. When Americans began settling the west, vaqueros served as the foundation for what would become the western cowboy.


Men stand around old wagon wheels in a blacksmith shop.
Blacksmiths often employed wheelwrights in their shops, such as the Bright Brothers Smiths, circa 1908-12. The caption reads: Front St. Shop (1908-1912). L to R Blaine Kalar, Lonnie Burch, Frank Bright and Fred Bright. (Photo: Santa Cruz Public Library.)

Running to the local tire store wasn’t an option at the time so wheelwrights crafted or repaired the wood-and-metal wheels for carriages, wagons and farm equipment. Wheelwrights in 1882 earned $75 per month.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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