by John

It is Labor Day weekend, and while for many it is a time to mark the end of summer vacations, the holiday was originally instituted in 1894 to celebrate the contributions of American workers. For us genealogists, it seems to be a fitting time to think about the occupations of our ancestors. How did each of them earn a living, what knowledge and skills did they need to perform their work, and how did their occupation place them into the context of the time and place in which they lived? These are great questions to ask as we research and write our family histories.

I suspect that for most of our ancestors, especially before the Civil War, farming or some variation of farm labor dominated their lives, since America was overwhelmingly agricultural. However, even in rural areas, there were small shop keepers, millers, doctors, carpenters, and a variety of other skilled tradesmen. The federal censuses since 1850 listed the occupation of the respondent, and these can be extremely useful in documenting our ancestors' work, though sometimes a worker will be listed only as "laborer" without any additional detail. City directories will sometimes list the names of employers and can be useful, especially if we have urban ancestors working in factories or performing a particular skill.

Several books in our collection offer detailed descriptions of various occupations. In 1939, the U.S. Department of Labor compiled a "Dictionary of Occupational Titles," (973 D5636) which included detailed descriptions of various Depression-era trades. At more than 1,000 pages, the dictionary is surprisingly varied in its scope.

For earlier occupations, many of which may be archaic to a modern ear, there are several other useful dictionaries. Barbara Jean Evans's book, "A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists & Historians" (929.03 Ev15aa), lists many unusual occupations, such as "tabellarius" for record keeper and "lacewoman" for ladies maid. Paul Drake's "What Did They Mean By That: A Dictionary of Historical Terms for Genealogists" (929 D78w) is also an excellent source with many occupational descriptions. For the eighteenth century and earlier, Richard Lederer's "Colonial American English" (973.2 Aa1L) is an especially useful source for archaic occupations. German researchers will often find occupations included in parish registers, and Ernest Thode's "German-English Genealogical Dictionary" (929 T35g) remains an essential reference tool.

So this Labor Day, let's remember our worker ancestors and envision performing their jobs. Whether they were plowing a field or hammering on an anvil near a forge, preaching in a pulpit or selling goods in a store, their legacy of work helped to shape each one of us.