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It seems that nowadays working in a restaurant is a very common job for someone who may not have found work requiring more specific qualifications.

Yet it seems that of the various trades and professions that many writers of history have held, almost none I have heard of supported themselves in this way.

Is this because being a waiter was less common in the past for literate people or because restaurants became more common in the 20th century?

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I imagine there are a number of factors coming into play here:

  1. The restaurant as we know it emerged in the wake of the French revolution, which means that being a waiter wouldn't really be a viable job option until the 19th century. In the 19th century, we also saw the rise of writing fiction being a viable means of support (which, sadly, is no longer the case and there are perhaps 250 writers of fiction in the world who make a living exclusively from writing fiction).

  2. Being able to write was in itself a specific qualification for much of this time period. If you were sufficiently literate to be able to write, you were also sufficiently literate to be able to get a job which exploited your literacy, thus, e.g., Hawthorne working at the customs house, Trollope at the post office, etc.

  3. Status likely plays a role as well. Actors (stereotypically working as waiters before their “break”) often came from the lower classes while writers much less so (although there are certainly exceptions). Many of the writers whose names have come down to us from the 19th and early 20th centuries came from middle or upper class background (although, again, not all) and thus might have been unwilling to take a job which they considered beneath them.

All this said, there are, of course, the exceptions to the above assertions. Dickens famously worked in a blacking factory when his father was put into debtors' prison, although he did later return to school and worked as a journalist before embarking on his literary career. Herman Melville also had an impecunious father, but he still worked a number of white collar jobs before his stint as a sailor which was the preface to his literary career.

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    What? Of course there were restaurants before the French revolution—they just weren't called restaurants. From the OED, under eating house, we have the citation: 1673 J. Dryden Marriage a-la-Mode, "An Eating-house. Bottles of Wine on the Table."
    – Peter Shor
    Apr 6 at 16:42
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    There were places serving food prior to the late 18th century in western Europe, but they catered to travellers, while everyone else ate at home; the concept of going out for a meal and eating fine food from a menu served to you at a table by professional serving staff is what was new in western Europe. See Wikipedia. Being a waiter is more than just dumping food in front of a customer.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 6 at 18:07
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    Something this otherwise-comprehensive answer doesn't specifically consider is women writers: an educated middle-class woman in the 19th century who needed money might work as a governess, tutor, or schoolteacher (as Charlotte Bronte did) but wouldn't be a barmaid, waitress, or enter domestic service which were lower-status jobs. Middle-class women would often not work at all, instead depending on their families/spouses/inheritances (e.g. Austen, Woolf, Gaskell, Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein).
    – Stuart F
    Apr 6 at 18:11

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