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.

The Old Pioneers …

Our town just celebrated “Old Home Days” – other towns call it Pioneer Day; Settler’s Day – where the old stories are told and lives well lived remembered.

Towns across America will be celebrating their heritage this summer and newspapers will be interviewing the “old timers”.

Newspapers are a good source for finding the interesting stories of what life was like when they settled in the area; their first job; the flood; the war; the successes and all of the other milestones in their lives.

Discover your heritage, preserve it and pass it on!

Be a part of GenealogyBankSign up Now.

Find and document your ancestors in

GenealogyBank – the best source for old newspapers on the planet.
Period!

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Jamaican historical documents being rescued

The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme reported this week that it has completed its Inventory of Archival Holdings in Jamaica – zeroing in on the records at greatest risk.

The report concentrated on manuscript genealogical resources most at risk, “specifically in the National Library of Jamaica and the Roman Catholic Chancery, as well as in the Elsa Goveia Reading Room at the University of the West Indies at Mona. Also targeted are the Jamaica Archives located in Spanish Town.

The physical condition of documents ranges from very poor to fair, with many documents crumbling and in danger of disappearing. The most urgent attention should be directed at the Chancery, which does not have a preservation department and is not a formal archive. There is concern within the Chancery at the decaying state of the documents and this initiative to digitize documents is welcomed.”

Genealogist Obituaries

Bock, Terri Ann (Van Sickler) (1956-2009).
Kalamazoo Gazette (MI): May 3, 2009

Gooch, Jane Bradford (1912-2009).
New York Times: 3 May 2009

McCullough, Frederick Charles (1914-2009).
Oak Ridger (TN): April 29, 2009

Price, Oberia Garrett Estrada (1926-2009).
Alexandria Daily Town Talk (LA): 27 Apr 2009

Wow – break out the Diet Coke – GenealogyBank hits new milestone!

Wow – what a year!

GenealogyBank now has 252 million items - adding nearly 100 million newspaper articles, records and documents since it launched two years ago.

In the last few days GenealogyBank added over 6 million items making December a record setting month.

In December we added…
- More than 30,000 issues from over 150 newspapers
- Digitial Copies of Every Page
- Spanning 1836 to 1972
- Newspapers from 22 States – from Alaska to Florida from California to Vermont
- Big City Papers and Small Town Papers
- All of this new content can be searched right now

TIP: GenealogyBank is the best source for old newspapers on the planet!
Period!

GenealogyBank – more than 3,700 newspapers from across the country

GenealogyBank has newspapers from all regions of the United States … small-town weeklies to big-city dailies and all of them of high interest to family historians.

Here are just a few of the over 3,700 titles:

Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)
The Journal offers wide-ranging coverage of daily life and culture on the southwestern frontier, both before and after New Mexico and Arizona gained statehood.

Jim Thorpe – Born May 28, 1888

We all heard the stories of Jim Thorpe – the world’s greatest athlete – while we were growing up.

The newspapers & movies regularly carried stories about him and he was even featured on a box of Wheaties. (photo – NC Museum of History).

He loved to compete. He enjoyed the battle itself and the drive to win.
Today is his day – he was born on May 28, 1888.

I found a great quote in the Dallas Morning News 1 Jan 1953 – that captured his love of the game. It was given in an interview just two months before he died at age 64.

The newspapers are packed with articles about him. He was a hero to young and old alike. The town of Mauch Chunk, PA even changed its name to Jim Thorpe, PA (see Dallas Morning News 23 July 1954) … and I am still eating Wheaties.

GenealogyBank has more than 230 million records of more than One Billion people – some of them were well known heroes and some were our often less well known ancestors. But their stories are there to be read – recorded in more than 3,400 historical newspapers – from the 1600s to today.

Give it a try right now. What will you find on your family?