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

Index to Early Philadelphia Obituaries – Public Ledger 1836

DNA Study Finds Colon Cancer Risk for Descendants of George Fry who arrived in Weymouth, MA in early 1600s

Today’s Boston Globe is reporting the important work of University of Utah Dr. Deb Neklason, “a professional geneticist and an amateur genealogist;” in tracing the family history of a gene that causes colon cancer through many generations of the descendants of Colonial immigrant George Fry.

She presented her findings at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society last week.

Read the entire story in today’s Boston Globe (4 April 2009) here.

On the road – Family History Expo – St. George, UT

This year’s Family History Expo in St. George, UT was a big success. This well attended conference is becoming the largest genealogy conference in the U.S.

This, the 5th Annual Family History Expo had over 1,300 people in attendance. Genealogists flew in for the conference from all parts of the country.

I was pleased to be asked to present at 2 sessions this year and to be the conference banquet speaker.

If you weren’t able to be there in person – here are the PowerPoint presentations for you to review.

GenealogyBank.com – The Tour – Feb 2009

Genealogy Blogs, Podcasts, Facebook and more

Timeline of Genealogy – 1620 – 2009 – the tools

Green-Wood Cemetery – Brooklyn, NY – Honors Civil War Vets

Newspapers are producing more than newsprint – they are adding video news clips.
Here is an example from the New York Times – “Green-Wood Remembers Civil War Dead”

Click here and watch in depth report about Green-Wood Cemetery’s effort to document the graves of Civil War veterans.

It’s must viewing!