University of Illinois historian Eric Arnesen puts our nineteenth-century ancestors' lives in perspective:
At the start of the nineteenth century, wage labor was but one of many competing forms or systems of organizing productive activity. Skilled artisans produced in small shops, textile operatives labored in large factories, rural men and women made goods at home through the putting-out system, farm families tilled their lands, garment workers toiled in sweatshops, and African and African-American slaves performed forced labor on plantations or in rural industries and cities. . . . [But by 1870, the United States] had become a nation of employees. Some 67 percent of productively engaged people (involved in gainful occupations) -- a majority of the population -- now worked for somebody else . . . . Self-employment was the exception, not the rule.
Eric Arnesen, "American Workers and the Labor Movement in the Late Nineteenth Century," in Charles W. Calhoun, ed., The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1996), 41-42.
Harold Henderson, "Don't Ask Your 1820s Ancestor What His 'Job' Was," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 27 December 2012 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]