Monday, September 5, 2011

Workday Wednesday - Labor Day Edition - Ancestors' Occupations and the Census

The U.S. federal censuses are a key source of information regarding many aspects of our ancestors' lives, including how they provided for themselves and their families. While earlier census records note only the occupation, later censuses provide more information about our ancestors' employment, including whether they worked for themselves or someone else or if they were unemployed at the time the census was taken.

In the earlier censuses, it sometimes seems that all our ancestors were farmers, but there are other occupations listed: cobblers, tailors, milliners, blacksmiths, jewelers, watchmakers, and the list goes on. Enumerators may have even commented on someone's level of competence at a particular occupation! Although difficult to read, this clip from the 1880 census for the household of Azell Martindale of Moore County, North Carolina, shows Azell is a farmer, his wife Polly keeps house, and his 97-year-old mother Judah "Cooks & cooks well!":

1880 U.S. census, population schedule, Ritter Township, Moore County, North Carolina,
enumeration district (ED) 137, p. 30B (penned), dwelling 280, family 290,
household of Azell Martindale; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed 15 Nov 2010);
citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T9, roll 973
The 1930 census provides much more information. Forest Snyder (Snider), my first cousin once removed, was a showman working for a show company! His brother Ellison was a varnisher in a chair factory. Here is a clip from the 1930 federal census showing their household on the bottom two lines:

1930 U.S. census, population schedule, Marysville, Union, Ohio,
enumeration district (ED) 15, p. 7B, dwelling 193, family 197,
household of Forest Snyder; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed 9 Feb 2010);
citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T626, roll 1886.
Looking to the right on Forest's entry to the first column under the Employment, we see that Forest did not work on the last working day prior to the census enumerator's visit, but the entry for Ellison shows that he did work that day. I imagine then, as now, an entertainer did not work as regularly as others in more traditional occupations.

The 1940 U.S. census will be released to the public on April 2, 2012. One controversial question enumerators asked that year: For the year ended December 31, 1939, Amount of money, wages or salary received (including commissions). The answers to this question will help genealogists determine how well, or poorly, their ancestors were doing financially at the end of the Great Depression. It will be interesting to see who earned more in 1939, Forest the showman or Ellison the chair varnisher!

In researching census records, it is important to look at the information in EVERY column. Doing so will give you the details that will bring your ancestor to life, so to speak!

On September 2, 2011, GeneaBloggers announced the US Federal Census Contest with five one-year subscriptions to as prizes. This post is being entered in that contest. Because I have a subscription already, if I am one of the lucky five winners, I will use it as a prize for a contest on this blog. is one of several subscription websites that include online census databases and images as well as other collections of interest to genealogists.

© 2011 Denise Spurlock, Ancestral Trees Research

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