Discovering the Occupations of Your Ancestors

Finding Clues in Occupational Records

Researching an ancestor's occupation
An elderly tailor at work. Getty / Cheryl Chan

Do you know what your ancestors did for a living? Researching ancestral jobs and occupations can teach you a great deal about the people who make up your family tree, and what life was like for them. An individual's occupation may give insight into their social status or to their place of origin. Occupations can also be used to distinguish between two individuals of the same name, often an essential requirement in genealogy research.

Certain skilled occupations or trades may have been passed down from father to son, providing indirect evidence of a family relationship. It's even possible that your surname derives from the occupation of a distant ancestor.

Finding An Ancestor’s Occupation

When researching your family tree, it is usually fairly easy to discover what your ancestors did for a living, as work has often been something used to define the individual. As such, occupation is an often listed entry in birth, marriage and death records, as well as census records, voter lists, tax records, obituaries and many other types of records. Sources for information on your ancestors' occupations include:

Census Records - A good first stop for information on your ancestor's job history, census records in many countries—including the U.S. census, British census, Canadian census, and even French census—list the primary occupation of at least the head of household.

Since censuses are usually taken every 5-10 years, depending upon the location, they may also reveal changes in working status over time. If you're U.S. ancestor was a farmer, the U.S. agricultural census schedules will tell you what crops he grew, what livestock and tools he owned, and what his farm produced.

 

City Directories - If your ancestors lived in an urban location or larger community, city directories are a possible source for occupational information. Copies of many older city directories can be found online on subscription-based websites such as Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. Some free sources of digitized historical books such as Internet Archive also may have copies online. Those that can't be found online may be available on microfilm or through libraries in the area of interest.

Tombstone, Obituary and other Death Records - Since many people define themselves by what they do for a living, obituaries generally mention the individual's former occupation and, sometimes, where they worked. Obituaries may also indicate membership in occupational or fraternal organizations. Tombstone inscriptions, while more brief, may also include clues to occupation or fraternal memberships. 

Social Security Administration - SS-5 Application Records
In the United States, the Social Security Administration keeps track of employers and employment status, and this information can generally be found in the SS-5 application form that your ancestor filled out when applying for a Social Security Number. This is a good source for the employer's name and address of a deceased ancestor.

U.S. Military Draft Records
All males in the United States between the ages of 18 and 45 were required by law to register for the World War One draft throughout 1917 and 1918, making WWI draft records a rich source of information on millions of American males born between about 1872 and 1900, including occupation and employment information. Occupation and employer can also be found in World War II draft registration records, completed by millions of men living in America between 1940 and 1943.

Wills and probate records, military pension records, such as Civil War union pension records, and death certificates are other good sources for occupational information.
 

What is an Aurifaber? Occupation Terminology

Once you find a record of your ancestor's occupation, you may be puzzled by the terminology used to describe it.

Headswoman and hewer, for instance, are not occupations you commonly come across today. When you run across an unfamiliar term, look it up in the Glossary of Old Occupations & Trades. Keep in mind, that some terms may be associated with more than one occupation, depending upon the country. Oh, and in case you are wondering, an aurifaber is an old term for goldsmith.
 

What Made My Ancestor Choose This Occupation?

Now that you've determined what your ancestor did for a living, learning more about that occupation may provide you with additional insight into your ancestor's life. Begin by trying to determine what might have influenced your ancestor's choice of occupation. Historical events and immigration often shaped the occupational choices of our ancestors. My great-grandfather, along with many other unskilled European immigrants looking to leave behind a life of poverty with no promise of upward mobility, immigrated to western Pennsylvania from Poland in the early 20th century, and found employment in the steel mills and, later, the coal mines.
 

What Was Work Like for My Ancestors?

Finally, to learn more about your ancestor's day-to-day work life, you have a variety of resources available to you:

Search the Web by occupation name and location. You may find other genealogists or historians who have created engaging Web pages full of facts, pictures, stories and other information on that particular occupation.

Old newspapers may include stories, ads, and other information of interest. If your ancestor was a teacher you may find descriptions of the school or reports from the school board. If your ancestor was a coal miner, you may find descriptions of the mining town, pictures of the mines and miners, etc. Thousands of different historical newspapers from around the world can be accessed online.

Fairs, festivals, and museums often afford the opportunity to watch history in action through historical reenactments. Watch a lady churn butter, a blacksmith shoe a horse, or a soldier recreate a military skirmish.

Take a tour of a coal mine or a ride a historic railroad and experience the life of your ancestor first hand.

<< How to Learn Your Ancestor's Occupation

Visit your ancestor's hometown. Especially in cases where a lot of residents of a town held the same job (a coal mining town, for example), a visit to the town can offer the chance to interview older residents and learn some great stories about day-to-day life. Follow up with the local historical or genealogical society for even more information, and look for local museums and displays.

I learned much about what life was probably like for my great-grandfather through a visit to the Frank & Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discover Center in Johnstown, PA, which re-creates what life was like for the Eastern European immigrants who settled the area between 1880 and 1914.

Look for professional membership societies, unions, or other trade organizations related to your ancestor's occupation. Current members can be a great source of historical information, and they may also maintain records on the occupation, and even past members.