Free Dictionary of Old Occupations and Trades

What Did Your Ancestor Really Do for a Living?

What does that old occupation really mean?
Glass blower tools on a workbench. Getty / Nicola Tree

If you found someone's occupation listed as a ripper (seller of fish), seinter (girdle maker), hosteler (inn keeper) or pettifogger (shyster lawyer), would you know what it meant? The world of work has changed greatly from the times of our ancestors, causing many occupational names and terms to fall into disuse. 

If someone was a boniface or a ganneker, then they were an innkeeper. A peruker, or peruke maker, was someone who made wigs. And just because an individual was identified as a snob or snobscat, doesn't mean he was condescending. He may have been a cobbler, or someone who repaired shoes. A vulcan not only refers to a fictional extraterrestrial humanoid species in the Star Trek franchise, but is also a traditional English term for a blacksmith.

To further confuse the issue, some occupational terms had multiple meanings. Someone who worked as a chandler could be someone who made or sold tallow or wax candles, or soap. Or they might be a retail dealer in provisions and supplies or equipment of a specified kind. Ships chandlers, for example, specialized in supplies or equipment for ships, known as ship's stores.

Another reason you may not recognize a particular occupation is that abbreviations are and were commonly used in many records and documents. City directories, for example, often abbreviated occupations of city residents in an effort to save space and cut publication costs. A guide to the abbreviations can generally be found among the first few pages of the directory. It is also common to find certain longer occupational names abbreviated in census records, due to limited space on the census form. The instructions to enumerators for the U.S. federal census often provided specific instructions as to if or how occupations should be abbreviated. The 1900 census instructions, for example, state "The space in column 19 is somewhat narrow, and it may be necessary to use the following abbreviations (but no others)," followed by a list of acceptable abbreviations for twenty common occupations. Enumerator instructions in other countries may provide similar information, such as instructions to enumerators for the 1841 census of England and Wales.

Why does it matter what work that our ancestors chose for their livelihood? As it still is today, the occupation is often an important part of who we are as individuals. Learning about the occupations of our ancestors can provide insight into their daily lives, social status, and possibly even the origin of our family surname. Including details of old or unusual occupations can also add a touch of spice to written family history.


Can't find what you're looking for? Additional sources for old and obsolete occupations and trades:

Hall's Genealogy Website - Old Occupation Names
Some of the definitions include in-depth information and interesting details. - Occupation Codes from the 1910–1940 U.S. Census
Can't decipher an occupation from a 20th century U.S. census? Look for the code and then use the files provided by Steve Morse to connect the dots.

Family Tree Researcher - Dictionary of Old Occupations
Jane has an extensive list of unusual, old occupations on her website or, for a few dollars, you can purchase an easy reference ebook version.