You have found your ancestor on numerous records and discover he is a farmer, a carpenter, a blacksmith or she is a farmer’s wife, a teacher, a seamstress. But what does that mean? What’s the job description? When we know what that occupation entailed we can get a better sense of that ancestor and the work they had to do to put food on the table.
What they called a carpenter back in the day built anything from furniture to houses. Without power tools! And sometimes without nails! They were also often the local coffin maker. One of my carpenter ancestors not only built coffins and houses and fixed wagon wheels, he built a covered bridge in his home town.
A seamstress didn’t just whip you up a dress in the latest fashion on her Singer sewing machine. Or fix a rip in your sleeve. They made everything from shirts to sheets. By hand! With no paper McCall’s patterns! With teeny tiny barely-there stitches! One of my unmarried ancestors lived with a family the whole winter and made all the clothing (underclothes included) for the entire family and made their handkerchiefs, sheets, table linens – the works. Or a seamstress may sew for a nearby family and do it all at home, going to the client’s house for fittings. Learning to sew well, making fine stitches, as a girl kept many a woman from becoming destitute when her young husband died and left her with children to feed.
Occupations changed with the times – you would never find a car mechanic in the Middle Ages, and I am hard put to find a real butcher these days. Going further back in another time and another place, we may not recognize all the occupation names. For example, I have an ancestor who lived in Edinburgh circa 1660. It was written that he was a fermorer. Some people translated this as being a farmer, but I am not convinced. He travelled in some pretty hoity-toity circles for a farmer! In old Scotland a “fewfermar” or fermour was defined as: A tenant; one holding at a yearly ferme (few) or rent; a tacksman of public taxes or customs. But a fermor is not a fermorER. I did however, find in Chaucer’s “The Summoner’s Tale” (written in the late 1300’s) this line and its meaning given by those at Oxford:
“So dede our sextein and oure fermorer “
“So did our sexton and our infirmerer” (one who tends the church and one who tends the sick)
Keep in mind that internet articles and websites (this one included) are written by modern day people that don’t know everything about the times we did not live in. Look for more than one source and use your gut feeling, since only you know your ancestors situation. I am providing some links, but you can google the separate occupation, using keywords like historic, medieval, etc.
This is the Luyken Collection at Geneaknowhow.net – click on each trade , it has a drawing by Dutch artist Jan Luyken, with a poem in Dutch.
The Life of a Seamstress – Jane Austen Blog by Vic Sanborn
Obsolete Occupations (from Olive Tree Genealogy)
Occupations of New France
Old Occupations - another list
Old Occupations - another list