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.

17 thoughts on “Job Names in Historical Newspapers: Researching Old Occupations

  1. In 1876 my great grandfathers occupation was a hooker. It was on his marrage license. I have no clue.

  2. My grgrgrandmother, in 1885 city directory for Kansas City, MO, is listed with occupation “zephyr goods”. In another year she was listed as dressmaker, so I assume this is related somehow.

  3. Ethel,

    I’d love to know where you found that record. It’s possible he was a street-side solicitor or salesman!


    Kansas City Star (Kansas City, MO), Sep. 12, 1888, p. 2 (excerpt):
    One of the Many Queer Ways to Make a Living.
    The following sign was conspicuously displayed in one of the windows of a cheap restaurant on Union avenue yesterday.
    … A number of applicants were seen to enter, and from the appearance of their countenances when they came out, it was evident they were not pleased with the employment offered.
    A STAR reporter entered and asked a burly fellow seated behind a counter heaped up with pies and sandwiches about the position…
    “Young feller, you don’t want this job. You aren’t built for a “hooker.”
    The proprietor of the place then came up and explained the mysteries of the “hookers” employment. He stated that the “hooker’s” duty consisted of standing in front of the entrance of the restaurant and orating in a loud tone of voice that the best meals for a quarter in this city could be had within. If a country man, or as he puts it, a “Jay” happened along, it was incumbent on the “hooker” to grasp the country man’s arm, gently if he yielded, and forcibly if he resisted, and conduct him into the [illegible] place.
    “Now, if I put up a sign for “hooker,” I’d never get a call, so I jest [sic] say, “Solicitors for trade”…
    The “hooker” is a familiar figure on Union avenue. Nearly every saloon, auction joint and restaurant has one or more…

  4. Another definition for hooker pertained to the mining industry.

    Hookers were also miners who worked at the bottom of mine pits or shafts. Their duty was to secure (or hook) the newly filled corves [mining baskets or wagons], before they were taken to the surface.

  5. i am doing ancestry and i have found an ancestor and their occupation is listed…….do, is that a doctor?

  6. I found one of the articles on Shelter Island particularly insightful since I know the both the Havens and Archibald families! Funny, it is a small world!

  7. Jana,

    Thank you for including the blog article in your Fab Finds list. I appreciate it very much.


  8. If you could supply the census reference for carbiner, we could narrow the options.

    One definition would be rifleman, or someone who operated a carbine, or short rifle or musket. They were also known as carabiners, and a synonym would be cavalry soldier.

    A carabiner is also a device used to secure ropes in rock climbing, so there could be a relationship. To narrow down the meaning, review the census for others in the same vicinity, who either worked in the military or a heavy industry, such as mining.

  9. I’m not certain of the definition for platform man, but it may have been a loader, or person who assisted on a railroad or warehouse platform.

  10. I have seen the occupation “stripper” in city directories. It did take me aback for a minute, until I noticed that it seemed to be related to cigar-making!

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