What Did Your Hero Do for a Living?

Recently a writer colleague sent out a plea for help. She wanted to know what occupation, that existed at a particular time in a particular place, she might authentically assign to a character. If historical fact holds the frame for historical fiction, detail is the fairy dust that makes it come alive. Occupations for both major and minor characters are among those details.

There are lists, of course. The well-known Cyndi’s List of Genealogical Sites, for example, points to many 495px-Cooper_Tightening_Staves_on_a_Barrel_by_Jean-François_Millet,_c._1848-52sources for old occupational titles. Among them, the Guild of Colonial Artisans and Tradesmen 1607-1783 lists early non-agricultural jobs, and the Olive Tree Web site lists names of medieval and obsolete occupations. A writer might want to know that the position of girdle-maker existed even if she doesn’t want to use the medieval term for it: seinter.

However, since the writer who asked the question described a specific place during a specific period of the early twentieth century United States, my answer was easy: the U. S Census. Whether you seek specific family history, the economic history of a particular time and place, or want to enrich fiction with realistic detail, the census can be a treasure trove.


Samuel Glekie, perfumes master

Real occupations of real people may give a writer creative ideas. Who would have guessed, for example that someone might earn their living as a perfume master in Edinburgh in 1851 as this census record shows? Or that a sailor might live in a big city like Detroit in 1850? Sometimes simply browsing the census for a particular location can give you a flavor for how folks earned their living in that place and time. There are such resources for many countries and other ways to research occupations.

As early as 1810 the U. S. Census provided general information about categories of work: agriculture/manufacturing/commerce. By 1840 the census listed seven areas: mining/ agriculture/ commerce/ manufactures and trades/ navigation of the ocean/ navigation of canals, lakes, and rivers/ learned professions and engineers. From 1850 forward the U.S. Census provides specific information about occupations and businesses of specific individuals.

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The Widow Fitzpatrick, modeuse-a fashionista

Similarly, the census for Great Britain listed individuals and occupations beginning in 1841. Canada listed such information on census documents at least by 1831. While there are some earlier censuses, a unified form that included occupations for Australia began in 1901, about the time of Federation. New Zealand has occupational information in the census from 1871 on. Fragments of census records exist for some years and counties in Ireland back to 1821. What records exist usually include occupation.

The 1880 U. S Census had detailed schedules for agriculture with information about crop production, farm sizes, cost information for fence repair and fertilizer, and crop production. It also had detailed schedules for manufacturing operations with information about such things as wages, equipment used, and numbers of employees.

So where can you find census information? Great Britain, Ireland, and Canada have searchable indexes. Other resources vary. A number of sites have browse-access to the U.S. Census. Heritage Quest, available from home from many public libraries, has a first rate search tool for the U. S. Census through 1940. Ancestry.com, of course, offers census searches and much else for a hefty fee.

Where else can you find information about occupations? Sources include:

  • Newspapers—in the articles but also in adverts, and especially in obituaries
  • City Directories—also

    Hobart, Australia ads for teachers, printers and a pickle seller.

    available on Heritage Quest, in print at many public libraries, and occasionally online

  • Wills and death records

Researchers looking for more in-depth information about economics and occupations, particularly before the eighteenth century, may want to start with Google Books to identify areas of for further research. A similar limited access site for scholarly books and articles is JSTOR.

So what did your hero do for a living? And what about his enemies?


Cyndi’s List of Occupation Information on the Web

The Guild of Colonial Artisans

Olive Tree Genealogy Explanation of Obsolete Occupations

Census of Great Britain

Census of Canada (if prompted for login, hit cancel and wait)

Early Australian Census Records

New Zealand Census Records

Census of Scotland

Census of Ireland

Browse the US Census

Search the 1940 U.S. Census

Family Search List of City Directories

Online Historical Newspapers

Google Books