Posted by Ancestry Team on October 6, 2015 in Family History Month, Research

Occupations come and go, and sometimes job names do, too. Here are a few classics you probably won’t be seeing on résumés for the class of 2015:

brewster or maltster — maker of ales, beers, and other alcoholic beverages

chandler — candle maker; also seller of provisions

cooper — barrel maker

(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

crocker — pottery maker

currier — prepares or dresses leather for another trade; one who uses a curry comb to dress a horse

cutler — makes or sells knives or swords

drugster — a druggist or apothecary

farrier — a horse doctor or one who replaces horseshoes

glass bender — worker in a glassworks who forms glass into curved panels or tubes

joiner or joyner — an expert in properties of wood who joins different woods with glue or special joints for cabinetmakers

muleskinner — a teamster (driver of a team of animals, not always mules)

ordinary — innkeeper

sawyer — precisely cuts wood and makes veneers for cabinetmakers

slater — roofer

snob or snobscat — cobbler; repairer of shoes

turner — uses a lathe to turn wood into spindles, rods, decorative woodwork

vulcan — iron worker; blacksmith

(Blacksmith, Southeast Missouri Farms. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

wainwright — wagon maker

webster — loom operator

white cooper — makes barrels from tin or other light metals

whitesmith — works with tin; tinsmith

woodsrider — supervisor of a lumber operation

Sometimes you’ll find clues to occupations in surnames. A person’s occupation or place of residence was often used to differentiate between individuals and may later have been adopted as a surname (Barber, Miller, Weaver). You can also find clues about a person’s occupation in records you’re already familiar with: draft registration records, death certificates, passenger lists, naturalization records, obituaries, tombstone inscriptions, marriage records, land and court records, city directories, and, of course, the census.

(Adapted from George G. Morgan’s “I Saw What You Did,” which appeared in Ancestry magazine. You can listen to George, along with Drew Smith in the Genealogy Guys podcasts.)

Is your surname derived from the occupation of your ancestors?



  1. Janice

    I like this article too. I didn’t realize a slater was a roofer! Anyway, I don’t have ancestors with names as to their trade but another old term is “flesher,” which is a butcher.

  2. Larry

    I had one who was a japanner, and a female relative who in the late 1930s was described as a “farmerette”

  3. Scott Chase

    I would add ‘jobber’ to the list. The term can have many meanings, but one common one was middlelman or wholesaler. I had a number of ancestors whose occupations were listed in 19th century censuses as ‘cigar jobber’.

  4. Lisa Pressley

    My great uncle was a Cooper. Thanks for the information. I was so confused about his occupation.

  5. My great grandfather (on my mom’s mom’s side), was a muleskinner! We always called him a teamster! Never heard of muleskinner! My dad’s second oldest sister was married to a Miller! I think that is a very interesting article! Some of those occupations I have heard of before!

  6. Gail

    Thanks for the interesting info. Two great grandfathers and one great-great grandfather were all “Coopers.” Interesting to find out what that was. I guess they were coopers because they figured they would help out their “bootlegger” grandsons by making something to put their goodies in 🙂 Good information here!

  7. cmb

    “Gang Leader, Car Shop” — I am too young to automatically make the association with the railways. A gang leader has always been a thug in my mind!

  8. joy

    my maiden name was Fowler. I think it qualifies to make this list. A Fowler was a person who took care of the birds on the estate. Hawks & falcons & such? Probably not. More likely the term Fowler refers to poultry. Chickens & turkeys & maybe ducks.

  9. Jeanne

    my great grandfather was a drayman which today would be like a truck driver only with a team of work horses and a buckboard for hauling

  10. Clarence Jones

    One of my relatives occupation was listed in the 1900 census as Jappaner, whatever that is or was. Several other folks listed on various pages of the census also had the same occupation.

  11. Sue

    My 2nd great-grandfather gave “scroll sewer” as his occupation on his 1861 army enlistment. I believe this was operating a scroll sew.

  12. Jeff Watkins

    I would also like to remind people, that occupations are not the only thing that may have determined last names, on my Father’s side, Watkins, which means “Son of Wat, or Son of Walter, on my Mother’s Side, Giddings, Which is the place they came from, Thanks for your informative article,

  13. Robin

    Coachsmith. My 3X Great Grandfather and his elder sons, his at least one of his brothers plus others living in Wednesbury during the late 18th and throughout the 19th centuries were Coachsmiths as recorded in various censuses. I eventually found details of their specific skill sets but not at events like WDYTYA and the usual family history web sites like Ancestory. They were the forerunners of the current car and lorry etc vehicle assembly workforce with the associated specialist skills and competences so why do they never get a mention in listings of 18th and 19th century occupations???

  14. Thanks for informative article. Does anyone know what the last name “TARVER” might imply? Sounds like it could be a verb for some sort of occupation. I know it’s origin is British. There is a “Tarverville”, Georgia on later USA maps. Earlier maps (1950’s) list it as “Tarver, Georgia” and further south on the map.

  15. Barbara

    Just yesterday when researching my husband’s 3rd great grandfather, I saw on a census form his occupation was joiner. I had to Google it because I never heard of one. I’m printing this list for future occupations I’ve never heard of. Thanks so much!

  16. Jill

    Thank u when I saw my ggf occupation as a cooper that he worked in barrel company I thought cooper was name of a company

  17. Patti

    My GGF was a plumber. Someone who sets lead frames for plain or stained glass windows. I had no idea until I looked it up!

  18. EARL

    Last name is Boyer. “Earl Township” is in PA. Close by is “Boyertown”. Guess my Father and/or Mother had an easy time choosing a name for me.

  19. EARL

    Wife’s last name is YABE, which means “maker of arrows” in Japan. My last name, Boyer (Bowyer) means “maker of bows”. Soul-mates?

  20. Stacey W

    I’d add “wheelwright” to the list. My 4th great grandfather was a wheelwright, meaning a mechanic who specialized in wheel-making and repair. Kind of big deal in wagon-driving days.

  21. Pale

    I hadn’t heard of a few of those occupation names, so thank you. Earl, love your arrow/bow story. That is one reason we all love family history. Some of my ancestors were “puddlers,” which I believe were people who stirred the large vats in the steel mills.

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