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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- “Job Names in Historical Newspapers: Researching Old Occupations”
- “Historical Job Names in Newspapers (Part II)”
- “Early Women Occupations, Jobs & Avocations”