Summer Jobs

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today reminiscing about summer jobs. It’s that time of year, isn’t it, when high school students are thinking about how to earn money during their summer vacation? Whether it’s to buy that first car or to save for college, teenagers still look for work to meet their goals.

Back in the dark ages when I was growing up, most of us started early when it came to earning our own money. Whether we had an allowance tied to doing chores around the house or an outside job, the “work ethic” was drummed into us. If you agreed to take on the responsibility, you carried out your obligations to the best of your ability. Complaining might be allowed, but there was no quitting until the job was done.

My first “job” was helping my mother sell Christmas cards. In the 1950s, many people ordered their cards, with their names printed on them, months in advance. In addition to her regular job as a beautician, Mom carted around heavy sample books from three Christmas card companies—Wallace Brown, Marion Heath, and Tom-Wat—taking them into people’s homes so they could make their selections. [And aside: she sold Tom-Wat cards because that business was founded by my cousin’s husband. They were and are more famous for fundraising kits.] Eventually, she turned the business over to me. I couldn’t have been more than twelve, but I remember sitting patiently in various living rooms while customers paged through the offerings and then writing up their orders. I don’t remember all my customers, but I do recall that they included Dr. Vornos, my physician’s wife and partner, and Mrs. Stickle, who was married to the owner of the drugstore we patronized.

When I got a little older, I was roped into a traditional girls’ job. Babysitting was not my thing. I didn’t even care for it when my charges were asleep and didn’t need entertaining. I do recall getting a kick out of taking a close look at my employers’ possessions while they were out. I didn’t touch anything except the occasional book or LP, but I enjoyed being able to snoop, especially when I was babysitting for one of my teachers.

There’s a pattern to most of my early jobs, including the first “real” one—my parents were the ones who arranged them for me. The summer between junior and senior years in high school, I went to work as a long-distance operator for the local telephone company. A lot of my friends worked there, too, using the kind of “cord board” that, these days, you only see in old black-and-white movies. When someone wanted to make a call, a light would come on over their number. That meant we knew who was calling out. We were supposed to stick one cord into the hole and say “Long Distance,” (local operators said “Number, Please”) but there was one number, belonging to a local businessman, that no one wanted to deal with. It’s no surprise he complained, among other things, about slow service!

By the next summer, that office had closed down and all operations had been moved to a neighboring town. Instead of a cord board, we had brand new TSP machines to handle calls—early computers, if you will. I don’t think anyone could dial a number from home yet, although that must have come soon after, but they definitely still needed an operator for long distance. The job paid well, and paid better if I worked split shifts or at night. A family friend was persuaded to provide transportation and probably had something to do with arranging my schedule, too. The money was nice, but I suspect I missed out on a lot during that summer after high school graduation. At the time, it never occurred to me to question the choice of jobs, or suggest that I might be happier working closer to home, even though my best friend, who had worked for the phone company the year before, had a job at the local Woolworth’s and much more free time than I did.

Two things happened before the next summer. I started college in another state and my parents moved to a new town. For the first time, in April of 1966, I went job hunting. I had an advantage, Thanks to the tri-semester schedule at my college, I had almost four full months off. Although my mother went with me to apply, I got my next job, as a deli clerk at the local A&P, all by myself.

That was a great summer. I started out not knowing anyone, but a lot of seniors from the local high school also worked at the A&P and several of them became good friends. Let’s just say I didn’t spend much time at home. The term “party hearty” comes to mind.

For some reason, probably to do with how much more the job paid, I let my father convince me to work at a local bank the next two summers. In those days, that meant spending a lot of time sorting paper checks and posting data into what were essentially primitive computers. It was the most boring job I ever held. I worked in a back room with no windows and was by far the youngest person there. Although I was still in touch with some of the friends I’d made the summer before, there wasn’t nearly as much socializing. When my mom had to have surgery the second summer, I generously offered to quit my job to take care of her. My father wouldn’t hear of it. That darned “work ethic” thing again! I’d made a commitment and I was expected to keep it.

By the next summer, I was married (two weeks after college graduation). Unfortunately, although I had hope of a teaching job in the fall, I didn’t have any job lined up for the summer and my new husband was in imminent danger of being drafted. After a brief stint going door-to-door to hand out samples of a new detergent, I got smart, left my college degree off my resume, and landed a job based on other qualifications. I spent the summer working as a switchboard operator/bookkeeper at one of the local shoe factories.

At least the office was air conditioned.

Readers: What summer jobs did you hold? Did you stick with one you hated, or rebel and find one you liked better?

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her next publication (as Kaitlyn) is the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (Murder, She Edited), in stores in August 2021. As Kathy, her most recent novel is a standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. She maintains websites at and A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.

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10 Responses to Summer Jobs

  1. judyalter says:

    I worked as a general secretary/gofer in a hospital administration office after school and summers in most of high school and college. The part I loved best? Covering shifts at the switchboard, an old-fashioned cord board. PS The administrator of the hospital was my dad, but that job gave me the best training I could ever get, much better than school.

  2. Brenda Buchanan says:

    In high school I scooped ice cream at the local Friendly’s, which was a fun job in many ways, not so much when a gang of Little Leaguers piled in after a game and yelled over each other when ordering cones. The summer after my first year in high school I worked at a newspaper setting type and proofreading. Occasionally I was assigned to cover a planning board meeting or something equally scintillating and write up the story. In college I was a Resident Assistant and for some reason there were 3 – 1 more men than women in my building. I wound up being the surrogate big sister to lots of boys who were away from home for the first time. They were sweet for the most part, but many of them were learning about that “party hearty” thing, which was not so much fun for me.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Lots of variety there! Hope the scooping didn’t give you a distaste for ice cream.

  3. kaitcarson says:

    My only high school job was unpaid. It was supposed to be candy striper at the local hospital. The place was so small and understaffed (and it was before suing people became a hobby) that we were taught what would be considered advanced first aid and allowed to assist in the operating room. I loved it.

    My my memorable summer job was working in a bow factory. It was piecework and we packed gift bows in bags, boxes, and individual wrappers. To this day if I buy a bag of bows, I do my best to count them. Colors were selected from hoppers and hand stuffed into sacks. We were paid by the packed and sealed bag so the number of bows varied based on the “grab” of the stuffer! I’m sure it’s all automated now, but back in the day…

  4. John Clark says:

    Working in a blueberry processing plant, a limestone quarry, a lumber mill (running the chipper cost me much of my hearing as that was pre-OSHA), painting the old Carleton Bridge in Bath.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Sandy painted bridges one year too.

    • John,

      Your boss’s name on the bridge job wouldn’t have been Freelow Crummett by any chance? He tried to introduce the 18 y/o me to chewing tobacco. I threw up off the top of the old steel bridge in Freeman Township. Still afraid of heights to this day!

      BTW — Freelow is dead now but I’m still trying to come up with a character I can hang that name on!

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