Researching Old Occupations in Your Family Tree with Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott turns to old newspaper articles to teach his grandsons about some of the occupations their ancestors once had.

From census forms to marriage records, and from birth records to death certificates, many of our ancestors are identified by their occupational jobs.

Whenever I discover an ancestor’s occupation I always make certain that I add this information to my online family tree. Recently I was talking with our young grandsons about our family history, and made mention of a couple of the old occupations our ancestors held. Many of these old job titles, not surprisingly, were very foreign concepts to them. To help them out and enhance my never-ending attempt to capture the tapestry that is our family, together we opened up GenealogyBank.com for some help understanding what our relatives did for a living.

Old Occupation 1: Lamplighter

First we looked up the occupation of a cousin from Cleveland, Ohio, who was a lamplighter. For some reason I have always conjured up rather romantic visions of lamplighters. Reality set in as I read the first article I found, from an 1894 New York newspaper.

Bridge Car Lamplighters Article in the New York Herald Newspaper

New York Herald (New York, New York), 24 June 1894, section 4, page 1.

This article explained how relentless and demanding this lamplighter’s job was, as he had to light every lamp on a train—only to then move immediately to the next train and its lamps.

Then I came upon an article from a 1916 Rhode Island newspaper.

John Finn Lamplighter Accident Fire Pawtucket Times

Pawtucket Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island), 11 December 1916, page 10.

This historical newspaper article detailed the unfortunate experience of one John Finn, a lamplighter who accidently lighted his own clothes on fire, then jumped into a nearby pond to save himself! We chuckled and quickly decided that the work of a lamplighter was far from a romantic job!

Old Occupation 2: Cooper

The next old occupation that caught our attention was “cooper.” Although I knew that many of our Bohemian ancestors were coopers, this was a totally unknown job to our grandsons. While I explained that a cooper was a person who made barrels, we looked further. Our first discovery about this old job was an article from an 1898 Ohio newspaper.

Max Wolf Cooper Explosion Article in Cincinnati Post Newspaper

Cincinnati Post (Cincinnati, Ohio), 5 December 1898, page 1.

This story explained the unfortunate injury to one Max Wolf, a cooper who was working on a huge beer barrel with a 2,200-gallon capacity that exploded.

Next our occupational search brought us to an article from an 1880 Ohio newspaper.

Standard Oil Coopers Plain Dealer Newspaper

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 February 1880, page 1.

This 1800s news article contained an explanation of the cooper shop of the Standard Oil Company’s refinery, its “millions of oak staves,” its employment of “an army of men,” and the blue barrels with white tops coming out of the shop for hours on end.

Old Occupation 3: Grave Digger

We then moved on to another old family occupation: grave digger. Our first discovery on this occupation was an article from a 1906 Indiana newspaper.

Fritz Borchart Gravedigger Elkhart Truth Newspaper

Elkhart Truth (Elkhart, Indiana), 15 January 1906, page 6.

The news article’s subtitle stated: “Grave Digger at St. Louis Cemetery Becomes Insane Because of Nature of His Work.” Needless to say, that was enough to have us move on to something different.

Old Occupation 4: Miners

At this point I proposed we look into a more recent occupation of a family member, and suggested that we look up “miners.” Our first article was from an 1894 New York newspaper—but it wasn’t any more cheerful than the previous article.

Miners Mesaba Iron Range New York Herald Newspaper

New York Herald (New York, New York), 4 May 1894, page 3.

While this one sparked my interest, I decided we might need something a bit lighter for the boys. Soon we were scanning articles from the mines of Ishpeming, Michigan, to Hibbing, Minnesota—mines where family members worked over the generations to extract riches from the earth—that were more upbeat.

It wasn’t long before our conversation turned to the need for a good education to get a good job—and I realized that while we were looking at old family jobs, a positive impact had been made on these young men!

So tell me please. What are some of the different occupations in your family tree?

You might also be interested in these previous blog articles about early American jobs:

Job Names in Historical Newspapers: Researching Old Occupations

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides a fun quiz to test your knowledge of terms used in old newspapers to describe our ancestors’ occupations—and then provides illustrated definitions of those terms.

Genealogy research often finds terms used for occupations that are no longer common in today’s vernacular, such as: cordwainer, gaoler, huckster and suttler.

How well do you know the occupational terms used in old newspapers to identify our American ancestors’ jobs? Test your historical jobs knowledge with this handy Early Genealogical Occupations Quiz. Match the historical occupational names in the left column with the modern occupational name answers on the right. Check the key on the bottom to see how you did.

early genealogical historical jobs quizIf you missed any of the answers on the Early Genealogical Occupations Quiz, read on to see a list of illustrated occupations I’ve compiled from Genealogybank’s archive of early American newspapers. You may be surprised at some of the historical job definitions.

Cooper: In early America, coopers were barrel or cask makers and repairers, as seen in this 1825 death notice for George Lovis describing him as “a cooper by trade.”

George Lovis obituary, Statesman newspaper article 31 May 1825

Statesman (New York, New York), 31 May 1825, page 2

Cordwainer or Cordiner: Originating from the leather industry in Cordovan, Spain, a cordwainer was a shoemaker, as reported in this 1860 definition from the Salem Observer.

definition of cordwainer, Salem Observer newspaper article 3 March 1860

Salem Observer (Salem, Massachusetts), 3 March 1860, page 1

Corsair: A corsair was a pirate. A 1794 statute authorized the president of the United States to create a naval force to protect against Algerine corsairs, i.e., pirates from Algiers.

An Act to Provide a Naval Armament, United States Chronicle newspaper article 1 May 1794

United States Chronicle (Providence, Rhode Island), 1 May 1794, page 1

Gaoler: This was an early spelling of jailer, as reported in this 1799 marriage notice for Obadiah Havens and Nancy Robertson, the daughter of “Mr. Archibald Robertson, gaoler.”

Havens-Robertson wedding notice, Bee newspaper article 3 July 1799

Bee (New London, Connecticut), 3 July 1799, page 3

Gentlemen and Goodwives: These words are based on the term “les gentils,” and indicated a “gentile” who owned freehold property. After the 16th century, the term referred more to one who did not work with his hands, or one who had retired from working with his hands (e.g., a retired tailor). A gentleman’s wife was commonly called Goodwife or “Goody.” Gentlemen typically had Esquire (Esq.) added to their names, even if they were not attorneys.

Husbandman: A husbandman was an early term for farmer, often of a lower societal class.

In this 1825 newspaper article, plaintiff Isaiah Silver of Methuen was described as a gentleman, and defendant Benjamin Town as a husbandman.

State of New Hampshire silver-town legal notice, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 23 November 1825


Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 23 November 1825, page 4

Gun Stocker: A gun stocker was a weapon maker, or someone who fitted wooden stocks to firearms. In this 1776 reward notice for run-away indentured servant Richard Trusted, the advertiser described him as a gun stocker by trade.

Ten Pounds Reward, Pennsylvania Ledger newspaper article 9 March 1776

Pennsylvania Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 March 1776, page 4

Huckster: A huckster was a door-to-door, road-side or kiosk salesperson, such as Eleanor Keefauver, a young woman who grew and sold her own vegetables in 1903.

photo of Eleanor Keefauver, huckster, Plain Dealer newspaper article 12 July 1903

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 12 July 1903, page 32

Mason: A mason was a builder, bricklayer or stone worker, a term still used today. Many people are intrigued by the mystery surrounding the “Ancient & Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons,” an international fraternal and charitable organization known for its secretive rites. One of the earliest references in GenealogyBank dates to 1727, describing a society meeting “where there was a great Appearance of the Nobility and Gentry.” (The gentry held a high societal status just below the nobility).

notice of a Masons meeting, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 25 May 1727

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 May 1727, page 1

Privateer: A privateer was an armed ship, or the owner of the same, who was commissioned by the government to capture enemy ships—a form of legalized piracy. Privateers were often entitled to keep the bounty, known as a “prize.” This 1780 newspaper article reported that the privateer Dart brought a captured ship to Dartmouth.

notice about the privateer "Dart," New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury newspaper article 29 May 1780

New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury (New York, New York), 29 May 1780, page 2

Surety: A surety was a bondsman or bonded individual who ensured that an event, such as a marriage, would take place. If the event did not occur, the surety encountered a financial loss. In this 1800 advertisement, surety Thomas Crone guaranteed payment of a reward for the return of Thomas Ball, a deserted seaman.

20 Dollars Reward, Prisoner of Hope newspaper article 2 August 1800

Prisoner of Hope (New York, New York), 2 August 1800, page 99

Suttler: Suttlers were peddlers who sold items to soldiers or the military. This 1761 newspaper notice reported that John Malcom “desires one Thomas Power, a Suttler at Halifax, immediately to come to Boston” to settle his accounts, because Malcom’s “tarry” (stay) at Boston would not be long; he needed to return to Quebec before the breaking up of the lake ice.

notice about Malcom-Power meeting, Boston Gazette newspaper article 16 February 1761

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 February 1761, page 3

If you enjoyed these reports of historical occupations found in newspapers, watch for a follow-up in a future GenealogyBank blog article.

Did your ancestors have any unusual occupations? Share them with us in the comments.