Monday, September 4, 2017

Coming to Terms With
Ancestral Occupations

It's Labor Day here in the United States. Time to think of occupations—of our ancestors, of course. Time to muse over our great-greats who had no notion of what it's like to code for computers or delve into DNA. When we think of our ancestors, we think of people who lived in a simpler time, when those who weren't farmers were butchers, bakers or capillaire makers.

Wait. What?

I can't count how many census records I've searched through and noticed the occupation listed as farmer. It seems even my doctor and lawyer ancestors preferred to have themselves counted as farmers. But for those whose ancestors came up with more interesting ways to make a living, you might find yourself needing a guide to decipher those occupational callings.

For instance, as recent as an 1821 will in London, England, a gentleman was listed as being a capillaire maker. If this were my relative, I'd be scrambling to Google the term, of course. But in addition to that, I've found there are a few (somewhat) reliable sources for antiquated occupational terms that you might find of interest.

Thanks to Google, I discovered that capillaire was originally "a water-clear syrup originally flavored with dried maidenhair fern"—though later with "orange-flower water"—used by confectioners. I used to love having maidenhair ferns in my office—at least until I discovered by their dry appearance that they didn't appreciate my purple thumb. If only I had known: I could have gone into the capillaire-making business.

Despite what I was able to confirm via Google, though, my original discovery of the term capillaire came from a set of pages listing obscure and outdated occupational terms, found on the website of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. Even that was found courtesy of Google. It pays to come to terms with a great search engine.

Now that you know my secret source, if someone plies you with the question, "Which is a more important position: postilion or prothonotary?" you can head for such handy lists as that or, for those with a British Isles background, the occupational listing at the Hall Genealogy Website. Even Cyndi's List has a list of links for those researching odd or outdated occupational terms.

However, no matter what online resource you use, remember the "buyer beware" warning, even though this information comes to us, free of charge. With just a cursory glance at some of the pages in these collections, I was able to detect mistakes. Prothonotary, for instance, was listed as "prothonary" in the RAOGK website, and postilion evidently has more than one spelling—as well as definition variant. I've found it's always a good policy to take the precaution of googling any unfamiliar term found in an otherwise unvetted resource.

So, whether your ancestor was a beetler, a barker, or candlestick maker, don't just settle for transcribing an unfamiliar term into your genealogical database. Take some time to look it up. There may be riches to be discovered as the definition opens up an unfamiliar world to you—the world of your ancestors' lifetime and a resource which might well have become the ancient basis for your family's surname, as well. 

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