04 August 2019

Understanding Obsolete Occupations

Did you have an ancestor who was a milliner? You probably know that was a hat maker. And if you have been doing genealogy for a while, you undoubtedly have come across coopers (barrel makers), fletchers (arrow makers), or fishmongers (fish sellers). As you examine pages of the U.S. federal census for early years or read through old county histories, perhaps you have come upon more confusing occupations, such as a catchpole or a huckster, a webster or a peruker, and wondered just what those folks were doing.

A few years ago, the London (England) Genealogical Society published an intriguing list of occupations from the 1881 British census that included, among others, "colourist of artificial fish," "examiner of underclothing," and "turnip shepherd," the latter still not fully understood!

It does help to have a few resources at your fingertips for making sense of some of the unusual terms for the jobs our ancestors held. Here are a few websites that might be useful:

 Olive Tree Genealogy: Obsolete Occupations in Genealogy
(Be sure to scroll down to mid-page for the actual information on this page. And click on the related links under the title for more.)

"75 Names of Unusual or Obsolete Occupations" by Mark Nichol

Dictionary of Old Occupations
(This is a British website that includes more than 2,000 old occupations listed alphabetically. If you prefer to have an offline resource, you can purchase a copy as a digital ebook for Kindle for $4.)

"Deciphering Codes Appended to 1910 to 1950 Census in One Step" by Stephen Morse, Joel Weintraub, and David Kehs
(If you come upon an occupation in the U.S. census and aren't sure what it means, find the code that was added to the census page. Then, just click on the appropriate link on this web page. On the page that follows, use the little up and down arrows to enter the code numbers, and the rectangles will fill in with the possible jobs in that category.)

 Perhaps you would prefer to read about what jobs were available in 1837? Check out the Panorama of Professions and Trades by Edward Hazen which you can read online or download as a PDF at the Hathi Trust: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433089737872&view=1up&seq=5

By the way, a catchpole was an official pursuing those with overdue debts; a huckster, before it took on the meaning of a con artist, was simply a peddler; a webster was a weaver, and a peruker was a wig maker in the 17th and 18th centuries when men wore perukes, wigs with long hair on the sides and back.

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