The Surprising First Jobs of American Presidents

President Barack Obama brings doughnuts and pastries to Democratic campaign volunteers -- not his first job, but close
President Barack Obama brings doughnuts and pastries to Democratic campaign volunteers — not his first job, but close. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

We’ve all had boring, frustrating, dead-end jobs. Well, most of us, anyway. These are first jobs, often. Jobs that we can get because we don’t have any skills and because employers have a hard time keeping them filled. The trick, of course, is to swing those first jobs into something greater by picking up skills along the way. For many people, these jobs involve washing dishes, mopping floors, or maybe serving people dinner. For others, it’s working on a farm or behind a cash register.

The binding thread is that these jobs usually aren’t very glamorous or fun. They’re a rite of passage, though, for each and every one of us. Even presidents.

While most of our presidents have come from prestigious, high-skilled vocations — they’re often lawyers, business executives, or professors, for example — their experience at their first jobs are a lot like everyone else. From scooping ice cream to collecting garbage from construction sites, here are the first jobs from 15 of our presidents (including our current one).

1. Barack Obama

  • Back in the ’60s, you could find Obama scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins.

It’s hard to imagine President Obama scooping up ice cream, but that’s exactly what he was doing in his younger years. Obama worked at a Honolulu Baskin Robbins. Of his time there, Obama has said that his “first summer job wasn’t exactly glamorous, but it taught me some valuable lessons. Responsibility. Hard work. Balancing a job with friends, family, and school.” It’s safe to say that all of that hard work paid off in Obama’s case.

Next up: Honest Abe’s first gig.

2. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln | Alexander Hessler/Wikimedia Commons
  • Lincoln grew up working on a farm and working at a small store.

Before he was ending slavery and all that, Abraham Lincoln was a poor kid living in Kentucky and Indiana. He grew up working on a farm, and his career started when he got a job working in a store, and he also spent some time working on a boat on the Mississippi River. From there, we all know what happened to Lincoln — he would go on to be elected as America’s 16th president.

Next: The first job of the first president.

3. George Washington

George Washington
George Washington | Wikimedia Commons
  • He beat down the dastardly Brits — but first, he surveyed parts of Virginia at the age of 16.

George Washington is an American icon. He was our first president, of course, and assumed the role after leading the American army to victory during the Revolutionary War. Before that, he was just a teenager who was tasked with surveying parts of Virginia and West Virginia. Knowing the land likely helped him later in life on the battlefield.

Next: What Reagan was up to before becoming an actor.

4. Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan | Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • Before hitting the silver screen, Reagan spent his summers as a lifeguard.

Reagan was famously an actor and union leader before he became every conservative’s favorite president. But what about way, way back before all of that? It turns out, Reagan was spending his summers at the local watering holes, working as a lifeguard. If you want to go even further, though, Reagan also worked at a carnival in his early teenage years earning $0.25 per hour.

Next: Which president was a carny?

5. Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon during Watergate
Richard Nixon | Wikimedia Commons
  • Before turning Washington into a circus, Nixon worked at one.

There’s a lot of talk about impeachment these days. But there’s only been one president in modern history who’s been forced from the White House, and that’s Richard Nixon. Nixon had a career as a politician, but when he was just a kid, he actually worked at a carnival (like Reagan) running one of the games. He also worked at a butcher and plucked the feathers from chickens.

Next: One of our more controversial presidents.

6. Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson | Wikimedia Commons
  • Jackson started his career as a courier.

Before Andrew Jackson became a decorated military man and our seventh president, he was as low on the military organization chart as you can get. When he was just 13, Jackson started serving in the military as a courier. This was during the Revolutionary War, and it’s where Jackson got his first taste of fighting. He made a career out of it, and eventually transitioned to politics.

Next: Our second president.

7. John Adams

President John Adams
John Adams | Wikimedia Commons
  • Adams was a schoolmaster before getting into government.

Yet another president who was there for the Revolution, John Adams was our country’s second president right behind George Washington. Though he was a lawyer by trade, Adams started his career as a schoolmaster. He didn’t particularly like it, however, and transitioned his way into another field. Then, of course, became a politician.

Next: One of our least-popular modern presidents.

8. George W. Bush

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush
George W. Bush | Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
  • Bush is from an oil family and started his career as an oilman.

George W. Bush — the son of George H.W. Bush, another president — started his career off working as an oilman. His first job involved going out to oil fields, inspecting and scouting, and hauling stuff around. It wasn’t fun, of course, and eventually, he would go on to attend Yale, go into business, and then make the jump to politics.

Next: An adventurer turned politician.

9. Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt | Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • One of two Roosevelts on our list, Theodore Roosevelt’s first job appears to have been in politics.

A young Teddy Roosevelt didn’t have to work — his family was very wealthy, which allowed him to travel the world and lift weights (seriously). When he was old enough, he went to school, studying at Harvard and then Columbia. He dropped out of Columbia, though, to get into politics becoming a New York Assemblyman in 1882.

Next: A general turned president.

10. Dwight Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower | James Anthony Wills/Wikimedia Commons
  • Eisenhower was a military man through and through.

Another president who grew up on a Midwestern farm, Dwight Eisenhower was born in 1890 in Texas. He spent his childhood working on his family’s farm and nurturing an interest in military affairs. He eventually went to West Point, and upon graduation, entered the service. He worked his way up from there. All the way to the presidency.

Next: A man who lost his life on the job.

11. John F. Kennedy

US statesman John F Kennedy, 35th president of the USA
John F. Kennedy | Central Press/Getty Images
  • Kennedy benefitted from a fairly well-off family — and a father who had a prestigious job.

John, or “Jack”, as he was called by his family, didn’t have to work as a child, and instead spent his time playing sports and competing with his siblings. As he got older, though, he developed an interest in politics and current events. After graduating from college, he joined the Navy — which you could call his first job. He was sent to the South Pacific during World War II and served on a torpedo boat.

Next: Another founding father.

12. Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson | Wikimedia Commons
  • One of our most famous presidents began his career as a lawyer.

Another of our presidents that came from a life of relative privilege, Thomas Jefferson’s earliest known jobs were that of a lawyer and as a public official. He was also, naturally, a prominent figure in the American Revolution. He wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and would go on to be elected as our third president.

Next: FDR’s first job.

13. Franklin D. Roosevelt

United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt | Central Press/Getty Images
  • Roosevelt started work at the age of 25 as an apprentice lawyer.

The “other” Roosevelt on our list, FDR had a fairly prestigious first job: He was a lawyer on Wall Street. At the ripe old age of 25, Roosevelt became an apprentice lawyer. Later in life, of course, he’d go on to be elected as the 32nd President of the United States. And his first job stands in pretty big contrast to some of our other presidents, like Lincoln or even Bill Clinton — who we’ll discuss next.

Next: Bill Clinton.

14. Bill Clinton

President William J. Clinton
Bill Clinton | Wikimedia Commons
  • There’s a chance a 13-year-old Bill Clinton could have bagged your groceries.

Talk about humble beginnings — Bill Clinton, at the age of 13, got his first job at an Arkansas grocery store. There are a lot of rungs on the ladder to success, and making it from bag boy to President of the United States pretty much covers all of them. He also convinced the store owner to let him sell comic books, which earned him more money.

Finally: How did Donald Trump get his start? 

15. Donald Trump

trump in front of an american flag
Donald  Trump | Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • Trump cut his teeth as a scavenger — which explains a lot.

According to a 2006 article from Forbes, President Trump’s first job involved collecting recyclables from construction sites and collecting rent for his family’s properties. “I accompanied my father to his sites and would collect soda bottles with my brother for the deposit money. That was my first income. Later, I went around with the rent collectors to see how that worked. I learned to stand out of the doorway to avoid the possibility of being shot,” the article says.

Also, when asked how many hours he worked per week, Trump responded with “around 85”. Remarkable.

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