Census records, marriage documents, obituary notices, and other sources of information on your ancestors will often make note of their occupation. This may seem like a trivial little detail, unnoticed in your quest for your ancestor's birth date or parents' names. Yet what your ancestors did for a living can tell you a great deal about them and what they found important in life. An individual's occupation may provide insight into his social status or place of origin. An occupation can also be used to distinguish between two individuals of the same name. Certain skilled occupations or trades, or even more unusual occupations, may have been passed down from father to son, providing indirect evidence of a family relationship. In short, an ancestor's choice of occupation can serve as a valuable guide marker in your path through their life.
Begin your search for occupational clues in your own home. Look closely at your old family photographs. Do you have any photos of your ancestor wearing a uniform, or standing in front of a family grocery store? Do the family papers contain any old business correspondence, pay stubs, farm or business ledgers, or retirement records? These may provide interesting information on your ancestor's work.
Other records previously covered in this book can also be excellent sources of occupational information. Census records from 1850 on record occupations for each individual. By 1920, this occupational information had expanded to include not only the occupation or trade, but also the type of business for which the individual worked and his occupational status (self-employed, salaried employee, or wage worker). City directories can also be an excellent source for occupations as they tend to list the name of the business, rather than just the type of work the ancestor did. They are also available for many more years than the federal census.
My ancestor's occupation is not one that I recognize. What does it mean?
The world of work has changed greatly through the decades and centuries. For every new occupation — such as astronaut or web designer — that is born, another occupation name or term — such as ripper (seller of fish) or pettifogger (a shyster lawyer) — has fallen into disuse. Type old occupations into your favorite search engine to find a number of helpful lists and glossaries.
Death records are another place where you'll often find occupational information. Death certificates and obituaries often list the individual's occupation or former occupation. If you can find your ancestor in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), send for a copy of their SS-5 application record; it will include, among other things, their employer's name and address. Marriage records often include occupational information as well.
Once you identify your ancestor's occupation, the Internet is an excellent resource for learning more about the industry or profession in which he worked. If your great-great-grandfather was a cordwainer (shoemaker), the website of The Honourable Cordwainer's Company (
Is your last name Barker, Cooper, Fuller, or Cohen? These and many other surnames originally derived from an individual's choice of occupation. A “barker” was a leather tanner. A “cooper” made barrels. The surname Cohen often derives from the Hebrew for “priest.” And a “fuller” is someone who “fulled” or softened cloth by stretching, pounding, or walking on it.
An Internet search for a specific occupation can turn up interesting details. Unless the occupation was very specialized, you'll want to include other identifying details in your search as well, such as place, time period, or even ethnicity. For instance, a search on Google for history farming north carolina resulted in over 2 million hits. Narrowing the search further to tobacco history pitt county north carolina helps locate the interesting Pitt County Digital Tobacco History Exhibit (
State archives, local historical societies, and university libraries are also good places to look for information on various occupations as well as the records of businesses, institutions, and union and trade organizations. If the occupation was a common one in that particular area, such as with coal mining in Pennsylvania, you may find online exhibits with photos, documents, memoirs, and other valuable information. Most business and trade records will not be found online, but a search of online catalogs and manuscript collections can give you an idea of what is available offline, including membership lists, financial records, and occupational injury reports.
If the business, trade union, or other organization still exists, search the Internet for their website so you can contact them directly. They may be able to tell you what older records still exist and where they are stored. The U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) (