Let Memory Keep a Place for Those Who Labored, by Loretto Dennis Szucs

Flag.bmpThere 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 family’s working past. Among the treasures were a nineteenth-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 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 couldn’t recover the words. But a verse written by someone named Sarah in 1877 was clear, and it stuck in my mind:

“In after years when youth’s bright joys
Have vanished like Autumn flowers
Let memory keep a place for me.”

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, “If I had a thousand lives, I’d live them all for you.” Inked on the reverse side is her name and “1911”–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.

I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to understand my ancestors’ lives. What kind of a lifestyle did they have? Census statistics show that the vast majority of our ancestors were “laborers.” Relatively few of them made it into the history books or the social pages of the newspapers and after long hours of work most didn’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 wife’s occupation was summed up as “Keeping House.”

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 Stiles’ 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:

“Here 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.”

Ancestry has a huge collection of local histories and even if there isn’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 Records 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 “save a place” for them in our memories.

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Loretto Szucs (“Lou”) 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).

3 thoughts on “Let Memory Keep a Place for Those Who Labored, by Loretto Dennis Szucs

  1. As always, a great article. I recently returned to my home town. On the way there, I decided that, “You Can’t Go Home” is the title of my life’s story & that of my family. I decided it is very important to include the sub-title, “Meat on the Bones” & put as much as I can about the lives of my great-grandchildrens ancestors. They are the kind of folks described in the article – working too hard to leave many written articles behind. But, my memories of their stories when I was young will hopefully give our great-grandchildren a better understanding of the blessings they have received from the sweat & toil of others.

  2. Thank you Loretto for such a wonderful article about reminding us of the labors that our ancestors gave to make a better life not only for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. As read the part about the photo of your uncle in his miner’s hat, I thought of my one grandfather who was not only a farmer but also worked in a coal mine his brother-in-law owned and in which he and his oldest son nearly lost their lives when it collapsed on them. Grandpa knew it was going to but his brother-in-law wouldn’t listen to him. Later Grandpa worked for the city cemetery where my parents lived and raised us 3 girls. Grandpa had set rules for children in cemeteries as well as respecting the dead. Yes, he once kicked my cousin and I out of the cemetery. Children are not to be in a cemetery without an adult especially during a graveside service. Mom forgot about the funeral services that afternoon and gave us permission to go to the cemetery and wait for Grandpa to get done for the day and walk home with him. Needless to say it was Mom who got a good lecture that evening. As I look back, I understand Grandpa rules and have to agree with them. When I see someone walk across the middle of a grave rather than at the foot of the grave when passing by it, I go up the wall inside and if the person is with me I will say something to them – child or adult it doesn’t matter.

  3. I was interested in the difficulty of delivering milk in NY.
    My family had cows and delivered the milk in cans by wagon. The driver went the same routes–probably every few days and called out to alert the people. He had his own measuring tins, a pint and a quart with a wide mouth to dip the milk from a can and pour it into the container the lady of the house held.
    My uncle had bronze disks to hand out. When the customers bought a certain amount, she would get a disk, entitling her to a free pint or quart next time by presenting the disk to the driver. I have a number of these disks and some “cream top” bottles with my uncle’s name. JKH

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