Sunday, September 1, 2019

Heigh Ho

With Labor Day upon us tomorrow, I thought it might be interesting to review the occupations claimed by my eight great grandparents. Some of those careers, I figured, would be pedestrian—after all, everyone seemed to be a farmer one hundred years ago—while others might be downright antiquated.

While I was pretty sure none of my eight great grandparents would show up claiming any of the one hundred seventy occupations currently listed as obsolete on Wikipedia, I did run into one puzzler. That, however, might be owing more to miserable enumerator handwriting challenges than esoteric career choices.

For the most part, the occupations claimed by my ancestors were predicable and common—or missing entirely from my research grasp. In that latter category fell my paternal grandfather's parents, as I have yet to ascertain exactly who they were. But also stumbling into that same "missing" category were some of the women in the family tree. My maternal grandmother's mother, for instance, had the entry "none" listed for her 1920 and 1930 census record—and not even that much ink was spared for her entry in the 1940 census—yet, because she raised her granddaughter (my mother) during the early 1930s, I know this savvy businesswoman owned and managed her own orange grove in Florida during that same time.

My maternal grandfather's mother, likewise, found herself in a situation after her husband's untimely death in which, by economic necessity, she needed to open up her house as a boarding home. The only way I know this is when I found, among the ephemera inherited when my aunt died, this great-grandmother's calling cards and promotional postcards advertising meals and a room at her address. Yet on the census, nary a word of her enterprising endeavors.

And yet, of the paternal ancestors of whom I know so very little, it turns out that one great-grandmother—my paternal grandmother's mother—was not listed as housewife, but this immigrant woman, in her later years, took a position as an "operator" in a New York City shirt factory. This report in her 1920 census entry caused me immediately to link that mention with the historic disaster at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where one of America's deadliest fires caused the death of over one hundred employees in 1911, most of whom were women. It made me wonder how much progress had been made in the nine years since that event, and what the working conditions were when my great-grandmother took on such a job.

In that same census entry, this great-grandmother's husband claimed an occupation that sent me googling for answers. This great-grandfather claimed to be a "steamer" at what looked to be—here's the challenge of reading handwriting in census records—either a "cook works" or a "cork works." Steamer seemed more likely to be a term associated with cooking, leading me to think he might have worked in a restaurant. Apparently, though, there was such a thing as a cork works—at least according to the entry for one building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Checking further—unfortunately, not on that simple listing of obsolete occupations I had found at Wikipedia—I learned that the familiar cork stoppers we see on wine bottles are made through a process which includes cutting the cork bark away from its tree and boiling it to make it softer and easier to work with.

Boiling? Steamer?

So far, that's six great-grandparents mentioned: two ancestors I have yet to discover, plus a boardinghouse proprietor, an orange grove entrepreneur, an employee at a shirt factory, and a steamer at a cork works, whatever that is. That leaves us with two easy-to-explain others. One is my maternal grandmother's father, the dentist who also served as his small town's mayor, and my maternal grandfather's father, who before his 1911 death was listed simply as a farmer.

There you have it: out of eight greats, three women who did work outside of the role of housewife, plus two predictable occupations and one I've never heard of. And, of course, two mysteries whose names I'm still seeking through DNA matches. Perhaps by next Labor Day, I'll know what their occupations were, too.

How about you?


  1. This is a great idea for labor day. I keep meaning to make complete transcriptions of census records . .. . Just wondering if I have time tonight to at least go through a few generations of grandparents for tomorrow. My husband's grandmother and her twin sister worked opposite shifts at a glove factory. Her twin lived with her so she could help raise her children. No day care in those days.

    1. Oh, I hope you have the time to do that, Miss Merry! That kind of research uncovers so much about life for our ancestors that they might have taken for granted--but which we had no idea was part of "everyday" life.

      Interesting story about your husband's grandmother; stories like that were what got people through their hard times...and it seemed like they had so many more hard times than we do.

  2. Interesting! I am quite certain ALL of mine were farmers however one did work in a Copper Mine and his daughter my Grandmother was a maid before she was married:)

    1. I expected to see many more farmers in my family than I did, Far Side, as that seemed to be the default entry, even for people who had another profession. Interesting to hear about your ancestor who worked in the copper mines. That certainly was different!


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