SSDI Quiz: Understanding the U.S. Social Security Death Index

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 see how well you know the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA)—and the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) it maintains, an important resource for genealogists. Mary uses old newspaper articles to learn more about the SSA and SSDI.

One of the exciting features of GenealogyBank is the ability to search the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). This important genealogical database is updated by the United States Social Security Administration (SSA). GenealogyBank’s SSDI search page provides an easy way to access this data.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for the Social Security Death Index (SSDI)

Not all the fields on the search page have to be filled in, and some of GenealogyBank’s SSDI features are the ability to:

  • specify a specific date or a range for a decedent’s birth and death
  • specify by zip code or last known residence, or non-U.S. location

Data from the U.S. SSDI is frequently misinterpreted. If you think you are well versed in the subject, try this handy Social Security Genealogy Quiz and then check your answers below.

Social Security Genealogy Quiz

When did the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) system start?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on 14 August 1935, but taxes for the system were not collected until January of 1937. For more information about the history of the Social Security system in America, see www.ssa.gov/history/hfaq.html.

Roosevelt Signs Security Act as Cameras Grind, San Diego Union newspaper article 15 August 1935

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 15 August 1935, page 1

Who is covered by the Social Security program?

Many groups are/were exempt, including railroad workers, and certain employees of state and local governments and schools.

The railroad workers are covered by the Railroad Retirement Program, and contribute a portion of their wages to both systems with a calculation adjustment done at retirement. It’s a bit complicated, so please see U.S. Social Security Administration: An Overview of the Railroad Retirement Program.

Prior to 1983, when Congress changed the law, various municipalities and other groups had opted out of the Social Security system. For example, the Texas counties of Galveston, Brazoria, and Matagorda opted out of the system prior to 1983, and are covered under an independent system. After 1984, municipalities who had not previously opted out of the system were required to be covered by the SSA, along with civilian federal employees.

Does that include the President, Senators and Congressmen?

Yes. The SSA’s Frequently Asked Questions website states:

“All members of Congress, the President and Vice President, Federal judges, and most political appointees, were covered under the Social Security program starting in January 1984.”

Here we see the SSDI record for President Richard M. Nixon.

Social Security Death Index (SSDI) record for President Richard M. Nixon

Is the SSDI’s birth and death information reliable?

After 1974, proof was required to obtain a Social Security number (SSN). For persons who entered the system prior to that date, one should cross-reference birth dates with other records. Death dates are more reliable, as proof of death (such as a death certificate) has to be submitted in order to claim a death benefit.

Proof Now Required for Social Security, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 6 July 1974

Chicago Metro News (Chicago, Illinois), 6 July 1974, page 3

Does the SSDI report the location where a person passed away?

No. It reports the last known place of residence, or the final address where Social Security benefits were sent.

What are the three parts of a Social Security number (XXX-XX-XXXX)?

The three parts are, in order:

  1. the 3-digit area number (XXX),
  2. the 2-digit group number (XX)
  3. and the 4-digit serial number (XXXX).

The SSA maintains a table explaining the assignment of the numbers. For instance, Alabama was assigned numbers from 416-424, and Louisiana 433-439. However, the location doesn’t necessarily indicate a residence, and could indicate a variety of locations—ranging from where one applied for a card (not necessarily one’s residence) to an office that processed the application.

According to the document Meaning of the Social Security Number (Nov. 1982, Vol. 45, No. 11): Table 1.–Assignment of area numbers by State:

“Until 1972, the area number indicated the location (state, territory, or possession) of the Social Security office that issued the number. When the numbering system was developed, one or more area numbers were allocated to each State based on the anticipated number of issuances in the State. Because an individual could apply for a SSN at any Social Security office, the area code did not necessarily indicate where the person lived or worked. Since 1972…[the] area code now indicates the person’s State of residence as shown on the SSN application.

“The group number has no special geographic or data significance. It is used to break the numbers into blocks of convenient size for SSA’s processing operations and for controlling the assignments to the States.

“The last four digits, the serial number, represent a numerical series from 0001-9999 within each group…”

Will the SSA run out of Social Security numbers (SSNs)?

It is not known how many Social Security numbers have been issued. However, the nine-digit system allows for nearly one billion SSNs, so the current system has not run out of numbers.

Does the SSA reuse numbers?

No, although some people claim they do.

Does GenealogyBank have the ability to make corrections in the SSDI?

No. The Social Security’s Death Master File Data is supplied to publishers of the SSDI, so corrections have to be addressed with the U.S. SSA. GenealogyBank has no method to process updates to this government-supported system.

Does the SSA have a smart phone app?

Yes, although it does not include the Social Security Death Index.

On 6 May 2013 Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, announced:

“…the agency is offering a new mobile optimized website, specifically aimed at smartphone users across the country. People visiting the agency’s website, www.socialsecurity.gov, via smartphone (Android, Blackberry, iPhone, and Windows devices) will be redirected to the agency’s new mobile-friendly site. Once there, visitors can access a mobile version of Social Security’s Frequently Asked Questions, an interactive Social Security number (SSN) decision tree to help people identify documents needed for a new/replacement SSN card, and mobile publications which they can listen to in both English and Spanish right on their phone.”

For more information, see: http://www.ssa.gov/pressoffice/pr/ssa-mobile-pr.html.

Note: if you experience issues with the SSA app on your smartphone, you can give Social Security a call (1-800-SSA-1213) to get help troubleshooting the issue.

Additional Social Security Resource for Genealogy

Acquiring Records from Social Security for Genealogical Research

Nautical Terms & Phrases Found in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides another fun quiz to test your knowledge of nautical terms and phrases you may encounter in your family history research—and provides examples from historical newspapers.

Sailing ships, steamships, and sea travel were a big part of our ancestors’ lives, something genealogists often encounter when searching their family history. This blog article provides a fun quiz to see how well you know old nautical terms and phrases, then defines the terminology using examples from historical newspapers.

When researching ancestral voyages in newspapers, you’ll find that maritime language varies vastly from that on land.

That is, unless you reside in a nautical community such as Nantucket, Massachusetts.

A newspaper article from the Idaho Register in 1916 reported that “Nantucket speech is a museum of nautical expression.” A departing guest might hear, “Well, a fair wind to you,” and “women’s work” was referred to as “tending the kettle halyards.” Unless you know maritime terminology, you might not realize that a halyard is a rope (known on a boat as a line) used to hoist items, such as sails.

So what is a kettle halyard? That stumps me, but I suspect it was a kettle attached to a halyard, either for hoisting fish aloft for drying purposes, or to assist in bringing newly caught fish into the boat.

In 1841, a Nantucket mariner wrote his will strewn with nautical language. Obed Gardner wrote that he had “cruised with wife Huldy Jane since 1811,” and he wanted her and son Jotham to be “captain and mate in bringin’ to port” whatever he left. His story was told in that 1916 Idaho Register newspaper article.

Made His Will in Sea Terms, Idaho Register newspaper article 19 September 1916

Idaho Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho), 19 September 1916, page 6

Perhaps you are an expert in the language of the sea? Test your nautical knowledge with this handy terminology quiz and review the definitions below. You are welcome to share the nautical terms quiz and this blog article, with proper credit to me and GenealogyBank.

quiz of nautical terms and phrases found in old newspapers

Nautical Locations and Directions: Sailors use different terms to refer to the front, middle or back of a boat or ship. Some common ship terms are:

  • Abeam: middle of the boat or ship
  • Aft, astern or stern: the back or toward the back
  • Bow or foreship: front or toward the front
  • Midship or amidship: middle or toward the middle (half way between the bow and the stern)
  • Port and starboard: the left & right sides, respectively, as you face forward
What's Your Answer? Repository newspaper article 27 December 1939

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 27 December 1939, page 18

Blunderbuss: A blunderbuss is a type of flared firearm (weapon); the term later came to describe a clumsy person. In 1720, a “Sale by Publick Vendue” described various appurtenances “lately belonging to the Ship Thomas and Benjamin” that had been shipwrecked off the coast of South Carolina, including blunderbusses. There were also references to hooks, spears, horns, compasses and a poop lanthorn, which is explained below

Sale by Publick Vendue, Boston Gazette newspaper article 23-30 May 1720

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 23-30 May 1720, page 3

Brig or Brigantine: Brigs were an early and popular ship design. Most brigantines were square-rigged with two masts, as seen in this Library of Congress photograph of Oliver Perry’s brig Niagara. An alternate term definition is a ship’s prison.

photo of Oliver Perry's flagship "Niagara," Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Old newspapers contain numerous references to sea voyages, including one from 1738 reporting that the brig Sally and the ship Constantine (a larger vessel) were bound for London.

notice about the departure of the ships "Constantine" and "Sally," American Weekly Mercury newspaper article 5-12 October 1738

American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 5-12 October 1738, page 3

This 1917 newspaper article described the process of discipline on a ship. Insubordinate sailors were tried before a court called a “mast” and the worst punishment was to be sent to “the brig.”

notice of a ship's brig, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 2 November 1917

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 2 November 1917, page 3

Capsized or Capsizing: When a watercraft overturns, it is known as capsizing. In 1910, the sloop yacht Black Command, a type of one-masted sailboat, capsized off Solomon’s Island, forcing passengers into Chesapeake Bay.

Capsized off Solomon's Island, Baltimore American newspaper article 18 July 1910

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 18 July 1910, page 12

Deck and Poop Deck: A deck is a floor of a ship. Some of the more common decks are: the bridge (captain’s or navigational equipment deck), main, upper, lower, promenade (walking area), tween or between (empty deck between two others), flush (an open unobstructed deck), quarter (near the main mast), weather (exposed to the weather), and the poop deck.

The poop deck is located at the aft or rear of a ship and its placement is typically elevated. The term poop is derived from the Latin term puppis, or stern portion of a ship.

Japanese Ship after Crash off Capes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 3 October 1922

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 3 October 1922, page 15

Galley, Mess & Mess Hall: The galley or ship’s kitchen is where food is prepared, and the mess is the food, as seen in the following description from a 1917 newspaper article. Dining halls for soldiers and sailors are often called mess halls. This old newspaper article mentions that an enlisted sailor might be called a “jackie” by his family, but was always referred to as a “bluejacket” on board the ship—a nautical term which comes from his blue jacket uniform.

notice about a ship's galley and mess, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 2 November 1917

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 2 November 1917, page 3

Keel: The keel is the structure on the bottom of a vessel’s hull (main body), which counterbalances the boat’s weight should it lean (known as listing) too far to one side. Without a keel, ships often capsize. In 1901, Commodore Perry’s brig Porcupine from the War of 1812 was located by Dr. Schuyler C. Graves. Not much was left, but he was able to secure the keel and put it on display.

All That Remains of Commodore Perry's Warship, Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 19 October 1901

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 19 October 1901, page 13

Lanthorn and Poop Lanthorn: This nautical term refers to a portable lantern (lamp) or signaling device. In the above example for blunderbuss, there is a reference to the poop lanthorn which indicates a lamp secured on the poop deck. The below photo depicts an early American lanthorn from my family. A recently discovered family note indicates provenance relating to the Miesse family of Berks County, Pennsylvania.

photo of a ship's lanthorn

Photo: Harrell family lanthorn. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Mast: The mast is the pole that supports the sails on the ship, but it is also a term for the court that insubordinate sailors face while at sea. See the above example for brig.

Mizzen or Mizzenmast: The mizzen is a type of mast located behind or aft of the ship’s mainmast. The term also refers to the lowest sail on the mizzenmast.

In 1898, Miss Cowan, described as a “Yankee girl,” climbed the mizzen rigging (ropes and equipment supporting or attached to the mast). As she did not have her bicycle outfit with her, Captain Storer lent her one of his outfits.

Yankee Girl Went Aloft, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 2 March 1898

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 2 March 1898, page 3

For more information on rigging and sails, see the Wikipedia articles at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rigging and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sail.

Sloop: A sloop is a type of sailboat with one mast and two sails (known as the mainsail and jib), although the term can also refer to a small square-rigged sailing warship with more masts. See the above illustration for capsizing.

Sternchaser or Stern-chaser: The following nautical term definition comes from a 1939 newspaper article.

notice of a ship's sternchaser, Repository  newspaper article 27 December 1939

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 27 December 1939, page 18

There are many more nautical terms you’ll find in newspapers. Let us know if you encounter one that you do not understand. Also, please share any nautical term definitions you have come across in your genealogy research with us in the comments.

Nursery Rhyme Origins Quiz: Meanings & History behind the Rhymes

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides another fun quiz to test your knowledge of the origins of some familiar nursery rhymes—and provides examples from historical newspapers.

What was “Ring-a-Round the Rosie” really all about? Eventually all genealogists hear rumors about the historical origins and meanings behind popular nursery rhymes, such as:

  • “Ring-a-Round the Rosie” describes people dying from the bubonic plague.
  • Mary of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was a real person.

I decided to research some of the common nursery rhyme claims, and came to the conclusion that you can’t believe everything you read or hear!

It turns out that one of the above rumors about the meanings of the nursery rhymes is true and the other is an unsubstantiated myth. Do you know which claim is correct? To find out how well you know the true origins of nursery rhymes, test your knowledge with my Nursery Rhyme Origins Genealogy Quiz. Select S for “substantiated” and U for “unsubstantiated.”

early nursery rhymes genealogy quiz

Origins of “Baa Baa Black Sheep”

The first known publication of this famous nursery rhyme was in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, a sequel to the lost publication Tommy Thumb’s Song Book of 1744.

Baa, baa, black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes, sir, yes, sir,

Three bags full;

One for the master,

And one for the dame,

And one for the little boy

Who lives down the lane.

Some report that the song had a connection to a British tax on wool, or sadly even the slave trade. Of the two explanations the tax on wool seems most realistic, since black wool was prized because it eliminated the need to dye the wool before making clothing.

Neither of these explanations about the meaning of the rhyme is substantiated. However, after reading the lyrics carefully, it appears to me that the song describes a common system of sharing the fruits of one’s labor. Although not proved, I believe this is the not-so-hidden meaning behind “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

A 17th or 18th Century laborer typically paid his master (probably a Lord of a manor) in goods or crops, and if he had a helper, he would also share in the bounty. Logically, the “little boy who lives down the lane” could have been an assistant, or someone who benefited from his charity.

History of “Jack and Jill”

This popular nursery rhyme dates to the 16th Century. There is no evidence as to the origin, but you may be surprised to learn that many early versions refer to Jack and “Gill” instead of Jill, as seen in this 1884 newspaper article.

Old Nursery Rhyme, Wheeling Register newspaper article 24 June 1884

Wheeling Register (Wheeling, West Virginia), 24 June 1884, page 2

Meaning of “Jack Be Nimble”

This is another famous rhyme of unknown origin. However, some think it refers to Black Jack, a 16th Century English pirate, or that it alludes to an old game of jumping over fires in celebration of the Feast Day of St. Catherine on November 25.

"Jack Be Nimble" nursery rhyme, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 8 May 1806

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 8 May 1806, page 6

Origins of “Little Jack Horner”

The true origin of this nursery rhyme is not known. Although widely debated, some suggest that “Little Jack Horner” refers to a 16th Century thief named Jack Horner, who acted as a courier for Richard Whiting, the Abbot of Glastonbury.

One year Whiting decided to send his courier Jack to bring a Christmas pie to King Henry VIII (1491-1547). Hidden inside the pie were twelve property deeds—which Jack discovered, promptly stealing one.

When he returned to the Abbot, Jack reported that King Henry had given him one of the property deeds as a present for delivering the gift. However, he was reportedly later found guilty of the theft and put to death.

I noticed that in this 1802 newspaper article, the spelling of plums was changed to plumbs.

"Little Jack Horner" nursery rhyme, New-York Herald newspaper article 9 October 1802

New-York Herald (New York, New York), 9 October 1802, page 2

History of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”

Mary had a little lamb,

whose fleece was white as snow.

And everywhere that Mary went,

the lamb was sure to go.

 

It followed her to school one day,

which was against the rule.

It made the children laugh and play,

to see a lamb at school.

 

And so the teacher turned it out,

but still it lingered near.

And waited patiently about,

till Mary did appear.

 

“Why does the lamb love Mary so?”

the eager children cry.

“Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,”

the teacher did reply.

For obvious reasons, I’ve always had an affinity to this song, so I was delighted to learn that Mary was a real person.

Mary Sawyer (later Tyler) caused a commotion when she took her pet lamb to school. That same day, a man named John Roulstone was visiting the school.

John Roulstone knew Mary Josepha (Buell) Hale (1788-1879), the noted editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, later known as American Ladies’ Magazine, and one of the people we can thank for making Thanksgiving one of our national holidays.

Roulstone apparently related to Mary Hale the amusing incident of little Mary bringing her lamb to school, and the popular poem was written—either collaboratively, or by Hale—in response to Roulstone’s account. The evidence for this can be found in several of Mary (Sawyer) Tyler’s obituaries, such as this 1889 example from a Boston newspaper.

Mary Tyler obituary, Boston Journal newspaper article 11 December 1889

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 December 1889, page 4

History of the “Mother Goose” Rhymes

If you visit Granary Burial Ground in Boston, Massachusetts, you’ll find the tombstone of a Mother Goose, a photo of which can be found on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mother_Goose_Grave_Boston.jpg.

Her tombstone reads:

HERE LYES YE BODY OF

MARY GOOSE WIFE TO

ISAAC GOOSE, AGED 42

YEARS DECD OCTOBER

YE 19TH, 1690…

However, this Mary Goose was not the originator of the popular series of nursery rhymes by the same name.

That honor goes to Charles Perrault (1628-1703), a noted French author and advisor to Louis XIV. His compiled nursery rhymes were often rewritten, most notably by the Brothers Grimm during the 19th Century. For more information on Perrault, see:

The Real “Old King Cole”

“Old King Cole” was reportedly a king who lived during the 4th Century in Kaircoel, England, with Koel being an early spelling for Cole. One version is that after the Saxons overran Britain, the town was renamed Colchester, as chester was the Saxon word for city.

As the legend goes, King Cole’s musically-gifted daughter Helen married Constantine the Great, and it is rumored that she either inspired or authored this famous song.

"Old King Cole" nursery rhyme, Weekly Herald newspaper article 28 July 1849

Weekly Herald (New York, New York), 28 July 1849, page 236

Another suggestion is that “Old King Cole” referred to Thomas Cole-brook, a 12th Century cloth merchant, but there is no evidence that any of these explanations are correct.

Origins of “Ring-a-Round the Rosie”

One of the most common misconceptions about old nursery rhymes is that this poem describes people dying from the bubonic plague. Others suggest it is about putting flowers in a pocket to cover bad smells, or that this is merely describing a child’s dancing game.

Nobody knows the true origins of this delightful nursery rhyme, but if you examine the terms, you may come to your own conclusion.

"Ring-a-Round the Rosie" nursery rhyme

Were “rosies” roses, and “poseys” bundles of flowers? In America, we sing about ashes, but in Britain, they use the term “a-tishoo.” Sounds more like an allergic response to pollen, but that is purely my own speculation.

Do any of you have ancestral souvenirs of nursery rhymes? Do you have any additional information about the history that inspired these famous nursery rhymes? If so, please share with us on Facebook or in the GenealogyBank blog’s comments section. And if any of you happen to find a copy of Tommy Thumb’s Song Book, please blog about it here before it debuts on Antiques Roadshow!

Old Diseases & Early Medical Terms in Historical Newspapers

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

Here is the 18th century folk ballad “O Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” from a 1794 newspaper.

"O Dear, What Can the Matter Be?" folk ballad, Weekly Museum newspaper article 22 February 1794

Weekly Museum (New York, New York), 22 February 1794, page 4

Although this old ballad doesn’t have anything to do with medical conditions, it describes my feelings precisely when I encounter accounts of diseases such as tetters, scurf and morphew in early newspapers like this 1736 advertisement.

To Be Sold, New-York Weekly Journal newspaper advertisement 29 March 1736

New-York Weekly Journal (New York, New York), 29 March 1736, page 4

“O Dear,” I think, “Are these strange diseases of yesteryear, or something we might contract today?”

The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Many of these early diseases are now sub-categorized into specific medical diagnoses, while others still exist but under new names. For example, in the 1736 newspaper advertisement above, Mrs. Edwards advertised products to cure tetters, a skin condition, which today describes the symptoms of eczema, herpes or ringworm.

What if you find an obituary or newspaper article about one of your ancestors that names a disease or medical condition using old terms you’re not familiar with? It’s important to understand the meanings of these early medical terms—otherwise you might miss an important piece of your family history.

Test your knowledge of these old diseases and medical conditions with this fun Early Medical Terms quiz. Match the old medical terms in the first column with the definitions on the right. The answers can be found at the bottom of the quiz. If you miss any, be sure to read the rest of the blog article—which provides definitions for these early medical terms as illustrated in historical newspapers.

early medical terms genealogy quiz

Acites or Ascites: In 1849, Sand’s Sarsaparilla was recommended as a permanent cure for a wide variety of illnesses, including acites, probably the same as ascites or abdominal swelling.

Sands' Sarsaparilla, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 19 February 1849

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 19 February 1849, page 1

Ague: This is another term for malaria, a disease often spread by mosquitoes, as noted in this 1875 account by J. G. Truman.

The Ague--Its Cause and Cure, Progressive Communist newspaper article 1 October 1875

Progressive Communist (Cedar Vale, Kansas), 1 October 1875, page 6

Barber’s Itch: This is an inflammation of the hair follicles, typically affecting the area around a man’s beard. It may be caused by eczema or ringworm.

Health Talks--Barber's Itch, Evening News newspaper article 14 January 1922

Evening News (San Jose, California), 14 January 1922, page 6

Biliousness and Bilious Fever: This ailment described a variety of gastric illnesses, ranging from nausea to bile disorders of the gall bladder or liver, as seen in these two advertisements from 1920 and 1840.

Dr. Thacher's Liver and Blood Syrup, Marietta Journal newspaper advertisement 2 July 1920

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 2 July 1920, page 3

Peters' Pills, Wabash Courier  newspaper advertisement 17 October 1840

Wabash Courier (Terre Haute, Indiana), 17 October 1840, page 4

Dropsy: Dropsy is edema or excessive swelling, a common ailment, which afflicted former Texas Governor James S. Hogg in 1905. Another reference to edema was anasarca.

photo of James S. Hogg, Baltimore American newspaper photograph 19 October 1905

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 19 October 1905, page 4

Grippe or La Grippe: The grippe is another name for the flu or influenza. In 1843, opponents of President John Tyler coined a variation of the disease: “The Tyler Grippe.”

The Tyler Grippe, Constitution newspaper article 9 August 1843

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 9 August 1843, page 2

Jail Fever: This is an early term for typhus or typhoid fever, which often spread quickly in confined areas such as jails. In 1828 there was a report of jail fever at the Bellevue Penitentiary in New York, which also sickened the “keepers” and physicians.

Jail Fever in New York, Boston Traveler newspaper article 22 April 1828

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 April 1828, page 2

King’s Evil: In the above example for Acites, the advertisement referred to King’s Evil, which indicated tuberculosis, scrofula or glandular swelling.

Morphew: Morphew was a type of blisters, often associated with scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency. (See the 1736 Mrs. Edwards advertisement above.)

Pest and Pest Houses: Also known as the “Black Death,” the pest is another name for the plague, a highly contagious and fatal disease. In 1782, when smallpox was prevalent, a reference was made to pest houses, which were “situated as not to endanger travellers.” In this sense, a pest house was a type of isolation dwelling or hospital where a person with any contagious disease might be housed.

pest houses in Waterbury Connecticut, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 28 February 1782

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 28 February 1782, page 3

Scurf: This is another medical term for dandruff, or cradle cap when applied to babies.

Scurf in the Head, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics newspaper article 9 January 1875

Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 9 January 1875, page 1

Tetters: This is a broad description of a variety of skin diseases, such as eczema, herpes or ringworm. (See the 1736 Mrs. Edwards advertisement above.)

Variola: This was another name for smallpox, and often describes a mild form of the affliction. In 1773, variolae patients from Nevis did not wish to be inoculated, as this was an “extraordinary infringement of their liberty.”

smallpox innoculation in Nevis, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 31 December 1773

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 31 December 1773, page 3

Historical Job Names in Newspapers: Old Careers & Occupations (Part II)

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides another 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.

An earlier blog article of mine entitled “Job Names in Historical Newspapers: Researching Old Occupations” illustrated the origins and meanings of old occupational terms found in historical newspapers. Since then, I’ve found more of these historical job terms that you may stumble across in your family history research. Many of these old career terms are confusing, such as curriers—a term we might mistake for messengers, but actually meant one who cured hides.

Note that some of these old occupation terms are common last names, such as Smith or Wright. This can be a valuable clue to ancestral research. As populations grew, it became necessary to require surnames to distinguish residents for tax and other purposes, so many adopted their hometown or occupation as their surnames.

Test your knowledge with this handy “Early Genealogical Occupations” quiz by matching the occupational terms in the first column with the definitions in the second. If you missed any of the old job definitions, read on to see their definitions illustrated with historical newspaper articles.

early job terms quiz

Collier: Derived from the Middle English word “col” meaning coal, a collier was a quarry worker, coal miner, or a crewman on a ship that transported coal. In this 1770 newspaper article, John Bishop—who ran away from his bail—is described as a collier by trade.

John Bishop, collier, Maryland Gazette newspaper article 4 January 1770

Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, Maryland), 4 January 1770, page 3

Currier: Today we think of curriers as messengers or deliverymen, but originally the term designated a skill in hide curing. Curriers were often tanners (hide tanners) as well, as seen in this 1849 obituary for James Fleming who “was a tanner and currier by trade.”

James Fleming obituary, Trenton State Gazette newspaper article 7 March 1849

Trenton State Gazette (Trenton, New Jersey), 7 March 1849, page 3

Farrier: A farrier was a craftsman or metal worker, who often fitted and trimmed horseshoes. The term is still common today, and was derived from the French word “ferrier,” indicating a blacksmith. (See the definition of Smith below.) In this 1729 notice, the deceased Adam Tuck was a farrier “late of Boston.”

Adam Tuck, farrier, Boston Gazette newspaper article 8 December 1729

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 8 December 1729, page 2

Furrier: A furrier was someone who prepared or traded furs, also known as a skinner. In this 1773 newspaper ad, John Siemon, a furrier, advertised his wares—including muffs and tippets, gloves, and robes and riding dresses trimmed in fur.

John Siemon, furrier, New-York Journal newspaper ad 9 December 1773

New-York Journal (New York, New York), 9 December 1773, page supplement 1

Indentured Servant: Indentured servants were obliged by work contracts to repay their debt (typically for travel costs) over a number of years. Most did not receive wages, but learned a skill and were provided room, board, clothing and other basic needs. Many families signed agreements with ship captains, who—upon arrival in America—sold the indentures to persons looking for workers. This 1716 advertisement reports that Capt. Nicholas Oursell had transported a variety of persons of varying occupations, such as coopers (barrel makers), joiners, smiths and washer women.

ad offering indentured servants, Boston News-Letter newspaper advertisement 18-25 June 1716

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 18-25 June 1716, page 2

The life of an indentured servant was not easy and advertisements looking for run-aways were common, such as this 1776 reward offer for run-away Richard Trusted, who had learned the trade of gun-stocker (a weapon maker).

Ten Pounds Reward, Pennsylvania Ledger newspaper notice 9 March 1776

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

Joiner or Joyner: A joiner worked in construction, particularly attaching wooden components to buildings such as doors, window frames and staircases. In this 1770 run-away notice, apprentice David Cox ran away from his employer. The old newspaper notice warns that Cox worked as a carpenter and joiner, but was likely to pass himself off as a mill-wright—one who built or maintained machinery at a mill.

Three Pounds Reward, New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy newspaper notice 29 January 1770

New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy (New York, New York), 29 January 1770, page 4

Marquis or Margrave: Based upon the term “mark,” which designated a British county or earldom, a marquis (or count of the mark or mark-count) was more of a title than an occupation, although they typically oversaw workers of lower rank. The term was later shortened to marquis, and came to indicate a nobleman with a rank above a duke. The German equivalent was “margrave” or “margravine” (male and female equivalents). This 1772 death notice was printed for Margrave Augustus George of Baden-Baden.

Margrave Augustus George obituary, Pennsylvania Chronicle newspaper death notice 3-10 February 1772

Pennsylvania Chronicle (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 3-10 February 1772, page 12

Sawyer: A sawyer earned his living by cutting (sawing) timber, as seen in this 1770 notice about John Wilmington, a sawyer by trade, running away from bail.

John Wilmington, sawyer, New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury newspaper notice 8 January 1770

New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury (New York, New York), 8 January 1770, page 4

Selectman: Chosen by townsmen, a selectman (similar to an alderman) was a member of a three- or five-member governing board of a New England town. In this 1810 news article about a ballot challenge, Nathan Prentiss of Petersham was accused of casting two votes for his choice of selectman.

Nathan Prentiss voting challenge, Berkshire Reporter newspaper article 9 May 1810

Berkshire Reporter (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), 9 May 1810, page 3

Smith: A smith was a metal forger or iron worker. One of the more common smith occupations is a blacksmith, who created and fit horseshoes. Some synonyms for smith are farrier, hammersmith and smithy. This 1786 obituary mentions that James Hays, by trade a cooper (barrel or cask maker/repairer) was the son of Thomas Hays, by trade a smith.

James Hays obituary, Norwich Packet newspaper death notice 13 July 1786

Norwich Packet (Norwich, Connecticut), 13 July 1786, page 3

Tanner: A tanner tanned or processed animal hides, and is similar to a currier or one who cured hides. The following anecdote occurred in 1826, when James Brown, a tanner by trade, disappeared and was assumed to be drowned. He turned out to be a prankster wishing to gain publicity.

James Brown, tanner, National Advocate newspaper article 28 February 1826

National Advocate (New York, New York), 28 February 1826, page 2

Wright: A wright was a skilled worker, and a repairer or manufacturer of wooden objects. (See also Joiner.) This 1872 obituary reports that Mr. Frederick Friend learned the trade of wheelwright beginning at the age of twelve.

Frederick Friend obituary, New York Herald newspaper death notice 31 January 1872

New York Herald (New York, New York), 31 January 1872, page 5

Yeoman (yeman, yoman, yoeman, yonge man or young man): Over time, the title yeoman had varying connotations, from a non-commissioned military officer or soldier who rendered specific duties to the crown, to a freeman who owned his own farm, or one who farmed but also provided military protection. As an adjective, it indicates a duty requiring great effort, as in this 1915 news photo of firemen rendering “yeoman service.”

Boston firemen, Boston Journal newspaper photo 23 September 1915

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 23 September 1915, page 6

Early Women Occupations, Jobs & Avocations

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 female ancestors’ occupations—and then provides illustrated definitions of those terms.

Our female ancestors were hard-working and talented women. Although historically many early jobs were not made available to women, the workplace roles that were filled by women often required highly skilled and talented workers—such as milliners and educators. These working women performed several different types of jobs throughout the 1800s and 1900s.

How well do you know the occupational terms used in old newspapers to identify our American female ancestors’ jobs during the nineteenth century and earlier? Test your historical jobs knowledge with this handy Early Occupations for Women quiz. Play the women occupations quiz by matching 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 well you know your historical jobs.

Early Occupations for Women quiz

Accoucheuse, Accoucheus or Accoucheur: An accoucheuse was a midwife, or one who assisted during childbirth. This 1826 newspaper article reported an unusual marriage, when Mr. William Sharp, age 18, married Mrs. Rebecca Varnel, who was 64 and had officiated as “accoucheur” at his birth.

wedding announcement for William Sharp and Rebecca Varnel, Bangor Weekly Register newspaper article 7 December 1826

Bangor Weekly Register (Bangor, Maine), 7 December 1826, page 3

Alewife: An alewife is a type of herring (fish) that spawns in rivers, and was used in Colonial times by Native Americans and Colonialists as fertilizer. When applied to an occupation, it indicates a female ale house or tavern keeper. In 1897, this newspaper account of “Meat and Drink in Old England” reported how food and drink were sold at a tavern: “The cook comes out to the tavern door and cries, ‘Hot pies, hot!’ and the alewife fills pots of half and half by pouring penny ale and pudding ale together.”

Meat and Drink in Old England, Woodbury Daily Times newspaper article 13 October 1897

Woodbury Daily Times (Woodbury, New Jersey), 13 October 1897, page 1

Besom Maker: A besom was a hand-made broom, in which a bundle of twigs was secured to a stick or broom handle. The job was common for, but not specific to, women. The term appears in this 1852 newspaper story.

story about a besom maker (broom maker), Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 14 August 1852

Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 14 August 1852, page 4

Charwoman: Charwomen were cleaners, who sometimes worked by the day or for several employers. The etymology may relate either to the term “char,” indicating something burned (possibly related to fireplace cleaning), or to the word chore. In this 1890 newspaper article, the Archbishop’s daughter is doing charitable work as a charwoman.

A True Sister of Charity, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 15 August 1890

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 15 August 1890, page 5

Chautauqua or Chautauquan: In 1874, the New York Chautauqua Assembly was founded by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent as an informal religious teaching camp along Chautauqua Lake. It developed into what is known as the Chautauquan movement. The main gathering was known as the “Mother Chautauqua” and spin-offs as “Daughter Chautauquas.” During these meetings, presenters provided lectures, concerts and other forms of educational entertainment. The following notice from 1874 announced the first convention, which lasted two weeks.

A Big Sunday-School Gathering, Springfield Republican newspaper article 4 August 1874

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 4 August 1874, page 5

Many women, such as Jane Addams and Maude Ballington Booth, were well-known on the Chautauquan circuit. The movement is still active today.

story about Chautauquan gatherings, Rockford Republic newspaper article 8 May 1905

Rockford Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 8 May 1905, page 5

Executrix: This occupational term is still current, and describes a female who is the administrator of an estate. This 1911 newspaper article names Mary C. Wishard executrix of the estate of E. S. Wishard.

The Wishard Estate, Evening News newspaper article 5 December 1911

Evening News (San Jose, California), 5 December 1911, page 4

Midinette and Milliner: Midinettes were Parisian fashion house assistants and seamstresses. Milliners made and sold women’s hats. In 1910, there was a strike in Paris by the midinettes, milliners and dressmakers of Paris.

Strike of the "Midinettes" in Paris, Trentoon Evening Times newspaper article 1 December 1910

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 1 December 1910, page 10

Necessary Woman: Prior to the advent of indoor plumbing, the necessary woman had the unfortunate job of tending to chamber pots (used for toilets). In 1882, this newspaper article described the employees of Queen Victoria’s household, which included a necessary woman.

Queen Victoria's Household, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 11 April 1882

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 11 April 1882, page 3

Pugger: Puggers were clay manufacturing workers who assisted in treading clay to make a paste. The job was not specific to women and often included children. This 1916 notice advertised for three clay puggers in Trenton, New Jersey.

ad for clay puggers, Trenton Evening Times newspaper advertisement 3 April 1916

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 3 April 1916, page 8

Scullery Maid, Woman and Worker: The term “scullery” applied to a small room, typically at the back of a kitchen (domestic or commercial), where laundry was processed, small food prepared or dishes washed. The job was common for females, but men also worked as scullery workers. This 1914 newspaper article, reprinted from a London newspaper during World War I, recruited women for a variety of jobs including scullery work.

story about work available in England during World War I, Weekly Times-Picayune newspaper article 15 October 1914

Weekly Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 15 October 1914, page 2

Tire Woman: Tire women were dressers or costumiers who worked in dressmaking or the theater. This 1801 newspaper article quoted the late Gov. Livingston commenting on the practice of promoting dress sales by dressing dolls in the latest fashion: “Doth a tire-woman in Paris send to London a doll completely accoutred [finely dressed] to shew [show] the new mode…”

story on fashion and dress making, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 26 June 1801

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 26 June 1801, page 2

Tucker: A tucker is a dress embellishment, or a person who attached a tucker to a garment. The decoration was typically made of lace or linen, and secured at the top of the bodice. The following image shows a 1906 ad for tuckers, and a 1910 picture of a girl’s evening frock (dress) described with a “neck being filled in with a tucker of mousseline and straps of pink ribbon.”

newspaper ads and a drawing for a tucker

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 March 1906, page 13 & Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 2 January 1910, page 13

Yeomanette: This is the female equivalent of yeoman, a term associated with certain military occupations, as well as farming. During World War I, women who served in the Naval Reserve were designated yeomanettes, as seen in this newspaper announcement that Eileen Carkeek, a member of the February 1918 class, had passed the Civil Service examination to become a yeomanette in the Navy.

notice about Eileen Carkeek becoming a yeomanette, Oregonian newspaper article 3 March 1918

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 3 March 1918, page 49

The Library of Congress Prints and Photograph archive has an interesting photo depicting uniforms worn by yeomanettes on duty.

photo of "Navy Girls on Review" c. 1918

Photo: “Navy Girls on Review, Washington, DC” c. 1918. Credit: Library of Congress file LC-USZ62-59313 at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b07059/

 

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.