Labor Day and Ancestral Occupations


by Carolyn L. Barkley

I’m observing a labor-free Friday! This article was first posted for Labor Day 2008 and appears here as a revision.

Labor Day symbolizes the end of the “carefree days” of summer. Paradoxically, it is often considered as a day of rest, a brief respite from the cares and concerns of our more complicated working lives.

There is no complete agreement as to who first suggested the idea of the holiday. Some believe that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was the first. Others believe it was Matthew Maguire, who in 1882 served as secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) in New York. (Isn’t this a typical genealogical situation – same surname with variant spellings confusing the issue?) On September 5, 1882, the CLU planned a demonstration and picnic in New York City, and repeated the event the following year. As word spread, 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 observing the holiday when the U.S. Congress passed a June 1894 act establishing the first Monday in September as new federal holiday honoring the country’s workers.

As a genealogist, when I consider the Labor Day holiday I think that it should not only be a day of “rest” from work, but also a day for our genealogical “labor of love,” as we research the occupations practiced by our ancestors and consider the impact of those occupations on their lives.

United States federal census enumerations are probably the records used most frequently to identify the occupations of our ancestors. Prior to 1850, censuses recorded only aggregate 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. As with other census milestones (e.g., identifying by name every person in a household), the 1850 census also proves to be an important census year for occupational researchers as enumerators no longer simply reported 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, thus providing a first look at child labor in the United States. Subsequent censuses added further detail including the number of months an individual was employed or unemployed during the census year. The federal government’s growing interest in the capacity of its workforce is illustrated by the labor and occupation-related questions included in each decennial enumeration.

City directories, social security applications, occupational directories and often obituaries are other sources that help identify how your ancestor spent his or her working life. Read every document relating to an individual to glean clues as to an occupation and analyze each piece of occupational information you find. You may find clues that will help you differentiate between multiple individuals by the same name in the same location at the same time. You will be able to understand more fully the life style 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 religious and other organizations the family members may 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, a carriage painter, came to New Haven, Connecticut, from England in the mid-1850s, at the same time that Frederick Dodd was a “coach body maker” in New Haven. Knowing the latter’s occupation helped me document a move he and his family made to Liberty, Sullivan County, New York, in the late 1850s. When the family returned to New Haven a few years later, George Duncan’s daughter Kate married Frederick Dodd’s son, Frederick O. Dodd. 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 in Springfield, Massachusetts. It would appear that the Duncan and Dodd men’s occupation was the common denominator that initially brought the two families together.

When I sat down to write this post, I reviewed several standard genealogical how-to books and found, surprisingly, that they often did not provide discussions about occupational research. While occupations such as coach body maker and carriage painter are relatively simple to understand, if you are researching earlier time periods or in other countries, you may encounter occupations that appear obscure, to say the least. Terminology may require you to consult other sources in order to understand just what your ancestor was doing.

I have found that consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, or the free-search option at Oxford Dictionaries Online, is helpful in defining occupations. Periodical articles and published lists of occupations–that can be located in PERSI (PERiodical Source Index)–are often the best sources in which to locate lists and definitions of old (and odd) occupations. Do you know what a tidewaiter did? a glazier? a peruker?  (customs inspector, window glassman, wigmaker). How about a snobscat? (shoe repairman). A chiffonier is not a fancy scarf, but a rag picker. One of my favorite obsolete occupational titles is “hamberghmaker” – not a MacDonald’s employee – but an individual who made horse collars.

Cyndi’s List provides an occupations category with 375 links, including several lists of occupations and their corresponding modern titles or definitions. Several sites of interest include the AFL-CIO’s state-by-state list of worker’s memorials and, given my interest in Scottish research, a list of old occupations in Scotland. Specialized sites are available for countries such as Germany and Russia. I searched my personal 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. Some titles were found by searching for specific occupations or trade names; I discovered others by searching for occupations in a specific country. Again, Great Britain is the most prolific publisher of 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 City. Similarly worded subject searches for France or the United States were unsuccessful.

From these brief examples, it is clear 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.

As you “rest” over the Labor Day holiday, I hope you will 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.

Have a safe and happy holiday.

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