It can be fascinating to look back and attempt to see what occupations our ancestors performed. In the various census records you do see ‘laborer’ quite frequently — which could be a variety of jobs. Another common listing is a farm worker since most people in the 18th and 19th centuries and earlier lived on a farm.
However, even into the early 20th century there were some jobs that were common then that you would rarely find anyone doing today, especially in the more developed nations.
How about a turpentine worker or manufacturer? Turpentine came from pine trees, so a landowner with many pine trees usually leased out the taking of resin from the trees to another company or had it done themselves to sell. It was used in many products, including paints, crayons, leather products, and varnishes.
For the ladies, they might have worked in a factory that made corsets (a form-fitting undergarment) worn by women. That job is long gone now.
Years ago to help spread the news events in a town there were the town criers. Yes, they yelled out the important news events / headlines and usually sold the local print newspapers. Today we have Facebook – Twitter to do that, making everyone a ‘town crier’.
How many people you know own and operate a livery stable? Most workers in a stable were blacksmiths also. For decades it was very common occupation – business, but now very few people run a livery stable.
Being a telegraph operator was another necessary and important job for years. The job as a telegraph operator was a fairly common skilled profession that paid well. The companies that operated them provided other jobs such a telegraph pole installer, a lineman, factory work to make the equipment.
There was also the many telephone switchboard operators, known as ‘Hello Girls’. They would put in long 8 to 10 days seated on a hard stool ready to connect one person with another.
Transportation in wagons and coaches had to operated by a stagecoach driver, another occupation long gone now. That would include those who made the whips used by the driver.
Then you might find an ancestor who was listed in the census as a whitewasher. An example was Charles Coston of Baltimore, MD in 1850. The person mixed lime and water along with a whiting and glue and then painted or applied it to fences, walls or other structures to give them a fresh coat.
An independent shoemaker is also very rare today. Shoes use to be custom made, not right off the rack like today. A highly skilled job and one generally held for life. So there were many with that occupation even in the smaller towns.
When you find an unusual occupation for an ancestor, make note of it, look it up on a search engine to learn what it entailed, even it you think you do know. Look through the census records to see if other people in that hometown did the same job. Then follow and note with each census if the ancestor kept the same occupation or changed. You will find also the sons of the family followed in the same line of work.
Photos: Shoemakers, Livery stable, telegraph operator, and switchboard operators in Stuart, Fl in 1947.
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