“Tote that bale…” Our Ancestors at Work

By Carolyn L Barkley


I’m celebrating the upcoming Labor Day holiday by revising an article about occupations and their use in genealogical research that appeared here in August 2008. Enjoy your holiday!


Labor Day symbolizes the end of the “carefree days” of summer. Contrary to its name, the holiday is often seen as a day of rest, a brief respite from the cares and concerns of our more complicated working lives. The provenance of the holiday is uncertain. Some believe that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, suggested the holiday concept first, but it may have been Matthew Maguire, who in 1882 served as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. (Isn’t this a typical genealogical situation: same surname with variant spellings confusing the issue!) On September 5, 1882, the Union planned a demonstration and picnic in New York City, and the event was repeated the following year. As the Central Labor Union spread the word and other union and labor groups supported the concept, many municipal governments and state legislatures enacted laws recognizing a “workingman’s holiday.” In 1887, Oregon was the first state to enact such a statute, and Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York followed suit. Over twenty-three states were already observing the holiday when the U.S. Congress passed a June 1894 act establishing the first Monday in September as a new federal holiday honoring the country’s workers.

As a genealogist, when I consider the Labor Day holiday, I think that it should be both a day to “rest” from our daily work and a day to pursue our genealogical “labor of love,” a time to research the occupations practiced by our ancestors and to consider the impact of these  occupations on their lives.

U.S. federal census enumerations provide the most accessible sources to use in identifying the occupations of our ancestors. Prior to 1850, censuses recorded only aggregate labor statistics: the 1820 and 1830 censuses counted the number of persons in each family who were engaged in agriculture, commerce or manufacturing. The 1840 census expanded on these earlier statistics by counting the number of persons in mining, agriculture, commerce, manufacturing and trade, navigation, learned professions and engineering. The 1850 census once again proves to be a milestone census year for researchers as enumerators no longer indicated simply the number of people in occupational categories, but instead reported exact occupations for all males over the age of fifteen (but no information for females). By 1870, the occupation, profession or trade of every male and female, regardless of age, was enumerated, providing a more comprehensive look at occupations in the United States, as well as a first look at child labor. Subsequent censuses added further detail, including the number of months an individual was employed or unemployed during the census year. The government’s growing interest in the capacity of its workforce can be seen by tracking the labor-and occupation-related questions included in each enumeration.

City directories, social security applications, occupational directories, and often obituaries are other sources that can identify how your ancestor spent his or her working life. Other useful sources include the geographically-based research guides published by the Family History Library. For a complete listing, go to familysearch.org. Click on the “Research Helps” tab and, choose “Guidance” in the drop down box. Sort the resulting list by subject by clicking on the appropriate command in the left-hand navigation bar); select “O” from the alphabetic table at the top of the page and scroll down to “Occupations.” You will find a listing of twenty state and country research guides that contain occupational information, and you can downloaded most of the guides as a pdf. Printed copies may also be ordered from the site.

Read every document relating to an individual to glean clues as to an occupation. Analyze each piece of occupational information you find. These records may yield clues to differentiate between multiple individuals by the same name in the same location at the same time. You will understand more fully the lifestyle of a specific individual and his or her family. An occupation might have dictated where and under what socio-economic conditions a family lived, as well as what organizations or church the family members might have joined. Frequently, occupational choices influenced succeeding generations, strengthening ties between families by both marriage and common experience.

I have been able to identify occupational trends within family groups in my own research. One ancestor, George Duncan, came to New Haven, Connecticut, from England in the mid-1850s. He was a carriage painter. Frederick Dodd was a “coach body maker” in New Haven at the same time. Knowing his occupation helped me document a move he and his family made to Liberty, Sullivan County, New York (and back to New Haven) in the late 1850s. George Duncan’s daughter Kate married Frederick Dodd’s son, Frederick O. Dodd, in New Haven. Frederick O. Dodd was employed as a “coach smith.” As industry and technology progressed and coach construction and painting skills were no longer required, Frederick O. Dodd and his brother-in-law George H. Duncan both worked for American Express Baggage Service. It would appear that the Duncan and Dodd men’s occupation was the common denominator that may have initially brought the two families together.

Occupations such as coach body maker and carriage painter are relatively simple to understand. If you are researching in earlier time periods or in other countries, however, you will encounter occupations that appear obscure, to say the least, and the terms used will require you to use other sources to understand what your ancestor was actually doing. I have found that the Oxford English Dictionary as well as periodical articles and published lists of occupations, are often the best sources for old (and odd) occupational definitions. Do you know what a tide waiter did? a glazier? a peruker?  (customs inspector, window glassman, wigmaker, respectively) How about a snobscat? (shoe repairman). A chiffonier is not a fancy scarf, but rather a rag picker. One of my favorite obsolete occupational titles is “hamberghmaker” – not a MacDonald’s employee – but an individual who made horse collars.

Several of the standard genealogical how-to books provide little information about occupational research. Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet includes an occupations category with links to several lists of occupations and their corresponding modern titles or definitions. Specialized sites are available for such countries as Germany and Russia, but the majority of sites listed are about occupations in Great Britain. I searched my library collection for “occupations” on LibraryThing and found that I owned a few titles on the topic, all published in Great Britain. Probably the most detailed is An Introduction to Occupations, a Preliminary List, by Joyce Culling (2nd ed., Federation of Family History Societies, 1999). The Family History Library catalog identified several titles, but different search strategies yielded very different results. I found some titles by searching specific occupations or trade names, others by searching occupations in a specific country. Again, Great Britain is the most frequent focus for books with an occupational or occupational/geographic focus. A subject search for “Great Britain – Occupations – Dictionaries” identified The Complete A-Z Guide to Early Occupations: a Complete Guide to 1,700 Old Trades including Job Titles and Descriptions (Genealogy Printers, 2002); I will definitely look at this book the next time I’m in Salt Lake. Other similarly worded subject searches for France or for the United States were unsuccessful.

These brief examples show that occupational research is an important strategy for us to use in learning more about the lives of our ancestors. Our colleagues in Great Britain clearly understand its importance and those of us doing British Isles research will find significant assistance there.

 As you “rest” over the Labor Day holiday, I hope you will think take the opportunity to think about the occupation or trade of your ancestors and consider the impact it had on both their families and yours.





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