3 Sources to Learn More About Your Ancestor’s Occupation

Researching an ancestor’s occupation is an excellent way to build context around him or her. Our ancestors spent a lot of time providing for themselves and their families, so taking a look at how they earned their living can reveal a lot about their everyday lives. Here are three sources to explore.

1. Newspapers (and Not Just the Ads)

Rock Island Glass Works
Rock Island (Illinois) Argus, 12 October 1886, p. 4. Image courtesy Chronicling America.

Newspapers are among the best sources for building context for our ancestors. We are seeing their world as it happened, described by people who were there. While we might think to look for the ads of the place where our ancestors worked — and we should do that! — we should take it a step further.

When you’re looking in a newspaper, don’t stop with looking just for your ancestor’s name. Look for the name of the place where he or she worked. Articles that cover that business can give you insight.

This article from the Rock Island (Illinois) Argus tells us several things about the Rock Island Glass Works. They were looking for ways to innovate and improve their product. It also tells us that it was normal for the factory to shut down in the summer and fall (“…during the summer and fall cessation of work at the factory…”) If you’ve ever been in a glass factory, you’ll understand why they shut down in those hot months!

This article points out an abnormal schedule at the factory:

Our Ancestors Occupations - Rock Island Glass Works schedule
Rock Island (Illinois) Argus, 4 February 1875, p. 4. Image courtesy Chronicling America.

This lets us know that not only were the glass cutters having to work nights and Sundays but also that working at those times wasn’t the norm (otherwise, it wouldn’t have been a news item).

When a business suffers a disaster such as a major fire, it impacts the employees. It isn’t hard to imagine that the workers at the Streator Window Glass Factory in Illinois had to find other employment after this major fire:

Sources for Our Ancestors' Occupations - Newspaper reports of disasters
Salt Lake Herald, 8 April 1882, p. 6. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

How many of those employees ended up leaving Streator, Illinois to find work?

2. City and County Directories

When you find your ancestor in a city or county directory, take note of where it says he or she worked, then look for an ad for that business. South Side Bakery in Huntington, Indiana specialized in “fancy cakes and home made candies” back in 1897:

Sources to Learn About Your Ancestors' Occupation - Directories
Complete City Directory of Huntington, Indiana 1897-98 (Huntington, IN: W.A. Zeller, 1898), p. 40. Image courtesy Internet Archive.

(Learn about what other sections of a directory you should take a look at in this post.)

3. Agricultural and Industrial Census Schedules

The “regular” part of the Federal census — the population schedule — gives us basic information about an ancestor’s occupation. Take it to the next step and look for the agricultural and industrial schedules, which were taken in the 1850 through 1880 censuses.

The agricultural schedule details the crops and livestock that a person raised — including items like silkworms and hemp. (Learn more about agricultural schedules in this post.)

Industrial schedules not only tell about the products that were produced and the raw materials that went into them, but also about the wages and gender of the workers. Bonus: if your farmer ancestor had a sideline business, such as a saw mill or a tannery, he might also be included on the industrial schedules. (You can learn more about the industrial schedules in this post.)

The newspapers, directories, and special census schedules aren’t the type of records that will give you a person’s parents or a woman’s maiden name (usually), but they do offer us something of value about our ancestors: context.

Learning about how our ancestors earned a living is one way to build context. Here are 3 sources to examine for your ancestor's occupation.

Posted: September 1, 2016.

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  • Thanks for the Chronicling America source. I didn’t know about that source & I have already found me hubby’s family there!

  • Hi Amy, thank you for speaking at the MT State Genealogy Conference this past weekend. I enjoyed your presentations so much and learned a lot. I came straight home and started making timelines and guess what? I had so many holes in my research. Last night I found my gt grandma’s will, a birth date for a gt aunt and I nailed down my theory that despite family lore, my grandfather never was in the military chasing desperados across the border and back into Mexico. I’ll be so popular at the next family gathering. I’ve already sunk the Titanic story. Anyway, thanks again, you were great and I appreciate it. Jennie Pak

    • Thanks for your kind words, Jennie! Aren’t timelines great?! I love putting one together when the pieces of my research don’t quite seem to fit together. Sorry to hear that you killed off a family story, but I bet you’ll discover a true one that’s just as good.

  • Amy, I just started following you and I just read several of your articles. I’m so glad I found your page! Your articles are easy to read, short and to the point. I’ve already learned some new things from you. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Kelley! I’m glad that my posts have been useful to you! If you have any suggestions for a topic you’d like for me to cover, let me know!

  • Thanks Amy, good tips. It is a treat for me to see articles from my old hometown area. My wife’s ancestor owned a bottling company in Rock Island that used the glass from the Glass Works.

  • If your ancestor(s) served in the military you can search through a publication like Fold3 die muster rolls which define activities of military personnel-a wealth of knowledge that is one of the few sources that are indeed accurate.

  • Good tips all. Thanks for the email this morning about this post. I recently used DNA Painter to plug in the occupations of my ancestors, just to see if there were any trades that seemed to run in the family. Turned out not to be the case for mine, but it did help me see a few holes where I’d not yet documented occupations.

    • Amy, thanks for this valuable information. I don’t seem to have time to take your classes, unfortunately, Regarding the previous post concerning DNA Painter mentioned. How would one use it for occupations. I am new to that as FTDNA has just now offered it. Sylvia, Ellijay GA