Getting a first job at a local business became an important rite of passage for teenagers in the mid-20th century. In Fairfield, teenagers could find jobs at area stores, restaurants, or at the beach during the summer. While some needed to work to help their families, most were able to use their wages for their own spending money, helping to establish a sense of independence. Nationally, rates of teenage employment have grown even more since then; today more than 40 percent of 16 and 17 year olds hold jobs.
In the 19th century, children growing up in Fairfield were expected to work from a fairly young age, learning the skills deemed appropriate to their gender and social class, whether this meant sowing onions or learning to sew. Some learned genteel tasks like embroidery, while others labored alongside other family members or employers, tending livestock, churning butter, scrubbing laundry, and harvesting crops. Others left Fairfield as teenagers to seek their fortune, either at sea or in a bigger city.
“A child of six years old can be made useful...They can knit garters, suspenders, and stockings; they can make patchwork and braid straw; they can make mats for the table, and mats for the floor; they can weed the garden, and pick cranberries from the meadow, to be carried to market.” (Lydia Maria Child in an advice book, 1832)
“Johnny must be a very smart onion weeder, if he can hoe & weed 25 rows in a day. I guess the work will go on well.” (Samuel Morehouse to Angeline Morehouse, 1863)
“My seasickness is now gone and I begin to eat quite hearty at the salt beef and hard sea cakes, but oh dear! How I could go into some of my mother’s pies and puddings…As I sat down under the lee of the long boat pulling the yarns to pieces, I could not help thinking of dear home and friends and all the pleasures that I had enjoyed in my younger days.” (Isaac Jennings, 1838, age 15)