May 1st is set aside in 80 countries as International Worker’s Day – a day to celebrate labor and working people. And this day serves as a reminder of how our ancestors toiled to put food on their tables and roofs over their families’ heads. Whether your ancestor was a homemaker, a farmer, a factory worker, a civil servant, a teacher, a construction worker, a salesman, a banker, a lawyer, a soldier or a sailor, his or her hard work contributed to the improved lifestyles most of us enjoy today.
It’s fascinating to look back in time and see what your people did to make a living and this is a good day to do it. Here are a few records that will provide insights:
Because of the importance of family heirlooms, there’s a good chance that someone in your family may have kept a clue to your ancestor’s work. Among the treasures in my own family were a 19th-century police badge, a photo of my uncle in his miner’s hat, and a printed card bearing my grandfather’s name and the address of his carpentry shop in Brooklyn. By the way, that policeman’s badge was the key to unlocking a whole line of family history. Once we tied the name and occupation together in census records, the family story unfolded.
As early as 1820, census records indicated the number of individuals in a household who were engaged in agriculture, commerce or manufacturing, but it was not until 1850 that the question of “Profession, Occupation, or Trade of each Male Person over 15 years of age” provided us with better details. Looking at census records from 1820 to 1940 will give you a good idea of how occupations have trended in families over the years.
Agricultural and Industrial censuses, sometimes called the Non-Population Schedules, can help you understand more about what it was like to own a farm or a business. Sometimes, details in these records will not be found elsewhere. Turn to agricultural schedules for insight into a family’s income, crops raised, total acreage, farm value, and more. Look for details about women, too. This agricultural schedule for Nottoway County, Virginia may be the best way to learn more about Catherine Jones.
Industry or manufacturing schedules include company name, type of business, resources, number of employees and more. Just like farms, women owned a surprising number of businesses, too. For example, this 1850 industrial schedule shows that Mary Ann Kelly was doing rather well with her artificial flower business.
You can learn more about agricultural schedules and how to get the most out of them in by watching Anne Mitchell’s video, Five Minute Find: Down on the Farm.
Taken in most states and territories from the 1850s to the 1880s, mortality schedules offer details on people who died in the 365 days prior to the day the census was taken. One of the details included on the schedule was occupation, which this 1870 mortality schedule from Denver, Colorado, shows could sometimes prove very interesting.
In order to collect more specific data, such as the financial needs and strengths of communities, states censuses were often taken in years between the federal censuses. The Iowa State Census for 1925 (available as part of the Iowa, State Census Collection) is especially rich, including details found in no other records. These census records span several pages; find your ancestor’s record then keep paging forward until you reach the “Occupation” columns.
A decided advantage for people with city dwellers in the family tree is the potential to find them in a city directory – occupation details included. These printed books that pre-date telephone books are available in many libraries and are becoming increasingly available online – including an ever-growing collection of directories at Ancestry.com.
Over the years an incredible number of county and local histories have been published. These sources often detail the history of all of the businesses in the area, plus biographical sketches of the more prominent members of the community can be a great way to learn about your ancestor’s livelihood. Here are a couple examples from Andreas’ History of Cook County, Illinois.
Passenger lists, especially those created after 1900, can be another way to determine an individual’s occupation. It is interesting to note that often large communities of coal miners would emigrate together; their destinations would specify a particular place in the United States where they were assured of a job.
Not everyone had the need for a passport, but when they did, their application included employment history. In some cases, passport application files include testimony of the employer stating that the individual applying had a job, proving that the applicant would not be dependent on the government for an income.
On July 1, 1862, Congress passed the Internal Revenue Act, creating the Bureau of Internal Revenue (later renamed to the Internal Revenue Service). This act was intended to “provide Internal Revenue to support the Government and to pay interest on the Public Debt.” Instituted in the height of the Civil War, the “Public Debt” at the time primarily consisted of war expenses. All persons, partnerships, firms, associations, and corporations submitted a list showing the amount of annual income, articles subject to special taxes and duties, and the quantity of goods made or sold that were charged with taxes or duties. Here’s Abraham Lincoln being taxed on his salary as president.
Occupation was one of the questions on the draft registration cards for the Civil War, World War I, and World War ll. Note that sometimes reasons for deferment included being employed in an industry that was critical to national security. World War ll Enlistment cards and other military records also include occupations of those enlisting.
These are just a few places you can find stories about the work your ancestor did to make your world a better place. Now you can honor his or her memory by looking back with new-found appreciation for what was done.
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