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:

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/