Smoky Mountain Family Historian

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Thoughts on Census Occupations

If you've ever looked at census records from Southern states, you know that the majority of the persons enumerated have a single occupation that was listed variously as "Farmer," "Farm laborer," "Farm hand," "Works on farm," etc. Occasionally on a big plantation, you'll run across "Overseer" but you know that person also worked on the farm.

Today as I was transcribing 1870 Massachusetts census records in the town of Plymouth, I was reminded of how varied occupations were in the north. I did have one farmer and one farm laborer on that page, but I had several mariners. (I wondered if the oldest one was the famed "ancient mariner," although I knew Coleridge was an English author and that his mariner predated this one. However, I did wonder if others in the town associated the poem with this man.) There was one person who was listed as working for the "shoe man." I don't know if this meant he sold shoes or worked in shoe repair or both. It was an interesting occupations though. The Superintendent of Schools was also on this page. It was interesting that this man had been born in Jolly Old England rather than in the states. One man worked in an iron foundry. Most of the women were listed as keeping houses. Most of the older children were "attending school" while the younger ones were "at home." A few young ladies had "no occupation." My favorite occupation on that first page was "paper box maker."

On the next page I indexed, I found a brick mason, an engineer, a bookkeeper, a rope manufacturer (I'll bet those mariners visited his business quite a bit), a locomotive engineer, a huckster (I'm picturing Mr. Haney from Green Acres in a much earlier incarnation), and two farm laborers and two farmers. Interestingly, the first laborer was an African-American--the first black family I'd encountered in indexing Plymouth. (This family, however, was born in Massachusetts rather than the South.)

In nearby Wauham Wareham, my next page yielded a couple of wharf workers (one of whom was a black man born in North Carolina; he was probably a former slave who migrated north after being freed), a mariner, several Irish iron works employees, and a stevedore (someone who unloaded and loaded the ships). There was actually what was likely a boarding house full of Irish workers for the iron works on this page!

One can actually learn a lot about a community by paying attention to the various occupations enumerated on a census. These communities definitely had occupations in keeping with their waterfront locations. The presence of a locomotive engineer means that the railroads were becoming an important means of getting goods from the shipyards to the outlying areas and the rest of the country.

My next batch is taking me to a different part of Massachusetts so I'll end my thoughts for now. I'm sure that I'll be able to tell as much about this next community as I was the others (and even those Southern communities where farming was the driving force).

Okay - I can't resist one more occupation that I ran across later because I'd never seen it listed as an occupation before (especially for 1870)--trance medium. I did find this person listed in the 1900 census as a "lecturer."

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