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10 Obscure Occupations Found on the 1880 Census

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Written by Jamie Drake

As American genealogists, family historians, and other history minded individuals, we often find ourselves drawn to the U.S. Census Records. They provide an amazing amount of information, but there is one field we often overlook.  Occupation.  At first glance, everyone looks to be a farmer, or if they are a woman, they work at home. A deeper look though, shows a bustling society full of a variety of work.  The men, of course, have the majority of it, but the variety of women’s jobs might be a surprise as well.  I’ve made a short list of 10 occupations and their descriptions taken directly from the 1880 Census of Ashland, Boyd County Kentucky.  Ashland was a bustling small town, full of traders, merchants, and miners, other towns might bring up some other interesting job titles.

  1. Cooper – While the name Cooper is relatively common these days, the trade of Cooper is not so well known.  As it turns out a Cooper is a maker of casks, wooden vessels, and sometimes coffins. While the word is no longer in common usage in its original meaning, Coopers do still exist and make barrels for the wine and spirits industry. 
  2. Furnace Hand- The area of Ashland, KY was well known for its furnaces. These furnaces turned ore to iron and working in them was a hot, dirty, dangerous, mess. A furnace hand would probably have been required to keep the heat up and the ore in.  Living near these furnaces wasn’t all roses either, since explosion was not an uncommon occurrence.
  3. Minister of the Gospel – This title was found several times through these particular records.  Religion was a huge part of our ancestor’s lives and this title would have been written respectfully and is probably equivalent to a Minister, Pastor, or Father. Other religious titles were found such as Priesthood. This area was predominately Baptist and Methodist, with a sprinkling of Universalists, Catholics, and Jewish people.
  4. Teamster – A horse team driver or stableman.  This term is now associated with Union Workers, and rightfully so.  It was the Teamsters of this time who formed the labor unions that precede those today.
  5. Drayman – This occupation is pretty much out of popular use.  Draymen delivered beer kegs to local establishments.  While we still deliver beer, it’s mostly done by truckers these days.
  6. Washer-Woman – A woman who washes clothes.  This was an important job in a time when laundry wasn’t a daily thing.  The washer-woman would have worked for families of importance, single men, and travelers.
  7. Hostler – At the time of this census, a Hostler was a stableman.  He cared for the horses, which were the only choice of transport besides walking. Nowadays, a Hostler is employed in the railroad industry.
  8. Notion Merchant – Notions are small items like buttons, clips, and pins, or items like purses and belts.  This was a big industry in 1880’s fashion.  A notion merchant would have been well known by the fashionable society of the day.
  9. Milliner – Probably would have been found cavorting with the Notions Merchant, a Milliner makes Ladies’ hats.  Hats in the 1880’s were a must, and a Milliner would have had a good business.
  10. Chambermaid – A job for a woman, cleaning up after hotel and boarding guests.  

So, next time you take a look at the census records, don’t ignore that “occupation” column.  It can give valuable insights into what life was like for your ancestor, where they were in society, and what they were doing on a daily basis.  


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