There seems to be some confusion over who first proposed the Labor Day holiday, but evidence points to Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. The intention was to have a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Last week as I was photographing some heirlooms, I came across reminders of my own familyâ€™s working past. Among the treasures were a nineteenth-century police badge, a photo of my uncle in his minerâ€™s hat, and a printed card bearing my grandfatherâ€™s name and the address of his little carpentry shop in Brooklyn. The fragile pages in a velvet-covered autograph book needed special care. The ink on some pages was so faded that I couldnâ€™t recover the words. But a verse written by someone named Sarah in 1877 was clear, and it stuck in my mind:
â€œIn after years when youthâ€™s bright joys
Have vanished like Autumn flowers
Let memory keep a place for me.â€
I wonder who Sarah was and if anyone kept her in their memory.
Then there was a priceless American flag embroidered by my grandmother. Under the flag, she had stitched the words, â€œIf I had a thousand lives, Iâ€™d live them all for you.â€ Inked on the reverse side is her name and â€œ1911â€–the year she died of typhoid fever. She was only thirty-nine. My mother and the aunt who raised me were little girls when they lost their mom so they barely remembered her. We do have some records that document her life, but it is only in a few photographs and the words she left on that piece of cloth that we get a hint of her personality.
Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™m not alone in wanting to understand my ancestorsâ€™ lives. What kind of a lifestyle did they have? Census statistics show that the vast majority of our ancestors were â€œlaborers.â€ Relatively few of them made it into the history books or the social pages of the newspapers and after long hours of work most didnâ€™t have it in them to leave us a written account of what was happening or what they were thinking. But there are ways we can get a better feel for what they were like.
What Did They Do?
The best way to discover what your people did for a living is to look at census records and city directories for the time period when they lived. In the 1880 census, my grandmother was seven years old. She and her younger brother were still in school, but their two sisters (fifteen and seventeen) were already in the work force and listed as coffee packers. Their dad was a gas pipe fitter and his wifeâ€™s occupation was summed up as â€œKeeping House.â€
Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries
While we may not have any correspondence or memoirs written by our own ancestors, with a little digging, we usually find something useful. My daughter, Juliana Smith, found a paragraph in Henry Stilesâ€™ A History of the City of Brooklyn, on Ancestry that described the route that the milkmen of early Brooklyn took to the markets in Manhattan. Since our Dennis, Poland, and Dooner families lived in Brooklyn and were in the milk business at various times, this quote about the dock area almost lets us step back into the scene:
â€œHere every morning, rain or shine, came the vendors of lacteal fluid, stabled their horses in a row of sheds erected for the purpose, under the shelter of the Heights; and, clubbing together in the hire of boats, were rowed with their milk-cans over to New York, encountering, not infrequently, during the severe winter months, much suffering and even serious danger from fierce winds and floating ice. Their cans were suspended from yokes across their shoulders, and thus accoutered they peddled off their milk in the city and returned in the afternoon, wind and weather permitting, to the Brooklyn side where they hitched up their teams and started for their homes.â€
Ancestry has a huge collection of local histories and even if there isnâ€™t a history of the location in which your ancestor lived, you may find some insights into his occupation through the eyes of others involved in the same trade during the same period.
Military records like the World War I Draft Registration RecordsÂ and U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-46 also list occupation and/or place of employment, as do Passport Applications, and U.S. Naturalization Records.
The sources mentioned here are just samplings of those that can give us a way of understanding the millions of workers who made this nation what it is.
Traditionally, Labor Day weekend is our last fling of summer, celebrated with hot dogs, apple pie, and barely a thought of the ancestors who struggled to make a better life for themselves and for those who would come after them. Maybe we should use a part of this Labor Day weekend to â€œsave a placeâ€ for them in our memories.
Loretto Szucs (â€œLouâ€) holds a degree in history and has been involved in genealogical research, teaching, lecturing, and publishing for more than thirty years. She has served on several archives and genealogical society boards. She was founding secretary (1976) and is again serving on the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS).