Labor Day and Ancestral Occupations

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Labor Day symbolizes the end of the “carefree days” of summer. Paradoxically, it is often a seen 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 cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was the first, while some believe it was 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 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.
When I consider the Labor Day holiday as a genealogist, 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 these occupations on their lives.
U.S. federal census enumerations are probably the records most frequently used 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. The 1850 census once again proves to be an important census year for researchers as enumerators no longer simply reporting 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 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. Read every document relating to an individual to glean clues as to an occupation. Analyze each piece of occupational information you find. You will find clues to 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 organizations or church 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, 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. 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 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 just what your ancestor was doing. I have found that the Oxford English Dictionary or 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) 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.
When I sat down to write this post, I reviewed several standard genealogical how-to books and found, surprisingly, that they did not provide any discussion about occupational research. Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet includes an occupations category with several lists of occupations and their corresponding modern title or definition among the site links. 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. Some titles can be found by searching for specific occupations or trade names, 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. Other similarly worded subject searches for France or for the United States was 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 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.

Have a safe and happy holiday.

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