Since today is “Labor Day” in the United States, I wanted to take a look at my ancestors’ occupations. Some of the jobs are still performed in much the same way today as they were in my ancestors’ times. My grandfather James Pointkouski (1910-1980) was born in the right century to be a truck driver, and the medium-size delivery trucks he drove are quite similar to those used by his fellow Teamsters today. My great-grandfather Joseph Bergmeister (1873-1927) was a baker, an occupation that has changed very little over centuries – in fact, today his cousins are still making wonderful things in the same bakery his uncle founded in 1868. My carpenter ancestors, 4th great-grandfather Karl Nigg (1767-1844) and 5th great-grandfather Johann Baptiste Höck (1700’s), would be in as much demand today as they were back then. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a good carpenter these days? Similarly, Karl’s father and grandfather, Phillip Nigg ( ?-1774) and Martin Nigg (or Nick), were masons – bricklayers. The construction business will always be in demand!
But many other jobs of my ancestors no longer exist in the same way. Some of the factory jobs of my 20th Century ancestors, such as the Pater family who all worked in clothing factories as weavers, still exist – but you won’t find the industry as prevalent in the United States as it was when they were working. Many of the other occupations of my ancestors have become outdated with modern times. For example, one of my 5th great-grandfathers, Franciszek Świerczyński of Mszczonów, Poland, was a carriage-maker in the 1800’s. Since carriages have been replaced by cars, I imagine that he’d be in another line of work today.
I have shoemakers on both sides of my family. My 4th great-grandfather, Ignacy Pluta (1821-?) from Mszczonów, Poland (he married the daughter of the carriage-maker), was one as was his father, Ludwik Pluta. In Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, I have traced over six generations of shoemakers from my Echerer line. The first Echerer son to be something other than a shoemaker was Karl (1846-1880s), who took up the occupation of his mason great-grandfather instead. While we still need shoes today, their construction has changed. Some shoes today are still hand-crafted with leather, probably using the same methods my ancestors used. Most shoes are mass-produced, and it would be hard to make a living as a shoemaker today unless you were a factory worker.
The more you research your genealogy and the farther back you go, the more interesting occupations you’ll find. Some will be “modern”, like my innkeeper ancestor. Others, like the glassmaker, still exist but today the job is more of a “craftsman” trade or art that is more specialized. Again, modern machinery makes many of the things our ancestors once made by hand.
One of the more unique occupations in my family history is that of my 3rd great-grandfather, Franz Xaver Fischer (1813-?) from Agelsberg in Bavaria. He was listed as a söldner, which translates as mercenary. Mercenary? I was intrigued and pictured a soldier of fortune, hired out to neighboring countries. Until I learned the Bavarian meaning of the word… A sölde is a small house with a garden. For tax purposes, there were different designations for farmers. A bauer owned a whole farm, a Halbbauer owned half, and a Viertelbauer owned a quarter. Then there was the söldner, who owned either 1/8, 1/16, or 1/32 of a farm. My mercenary was a poor farmer! Well, not too poor – there was a further designation called häusler - they owned a house, but not the land.
Let’s salute all of our hard-working ancestors today. I wonder what they’d think about some of today’s job titles. “A program manager? What the heck is that?”
Research tip: Translate your ancestors’ unusual occupations with these helpful sites:
- Occupation Translation Guide – offers occupational words in French, Polish, and English
- Old German Professions, Occupations, and Illnesses
- Old Time Job Descriptions - sometimes, even English jobs need some translation!
- Colonial Occupations
- Italian Occupations