Question of the Week: What unusual jobs have you found in your research?

+14 votes

imageWhat unusual jobs or occupations have you found in your research?

Tell us about them with an answer below! You could also use the question image to share your answer with friends and family on social media.

in The Tree House by Eowyn Walker G2G Astronaut (2.1m points)
My great, great grandfather Thomas McGlynn was a blacksmith. He emigrated to Ridgefield, CT in 1854 from Kildare. He was known as the only blacksmith in the region who could shoe a team of oxen.
My second great-grandfather Ludovicus Geeraert was a “teuten” from Luyksgestel, Noord-Brabant in the early 19th century. The teuten were traveling copper pot peddlers who walked around The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany, selling their wares that were made in Denmark.

I came across many extended family members that worked in a local textile mill. One of them, at about 14, was employed as a doffer, one that retrieved empty bobbins from the textile machines. 

In census reports you  come across many occupations that no longer exist today, or that are now done by machinery.  Some of the textile industry occupations I have seen reported were "Heck Maker", "Tasseler", "Throstle Spinner / Throstle Jobber".  

I found it fascinating to watch Tony Robinson do some of the jobs I read about in the census forms, on his "Worst Jobs in History" series - especially those in the cotton mills as my great-great-grands were Lancashire mill workers.
@ John Tinker, I've go an ox shoe on the mantelpiece, we found it in the veggie patch, quite a common thing to shoe oxen in France (and probable elsewhere).

50 Answers

+10 votes
Best answer
I recently found out that my ggg grandmother was a teenage lion tamer.

by Monica Edmunds G2G6 Mach 3 (32.8k points)
selected by Rita Schmidt
Was this unusual job with a circus?
Yes, they travelled around with a menagerie and lots of caravans of acrobats, musicians, etc. to round out the shows. The family was connected to a number of circus families, the Wombwells, Chipperfields, Chittocks, etc.
I only found out about it because there were several newspaper reports the day she and her three-year-old niece were mauled by the lion.

Wow!  That's not something you hear often.
+21 votes
17 year old girl in the 1880 census, occupation = "works out"

Sadly, she had zero followers on her Insta back then.
by Jonathan Crawford G2G6 Pilot (236k points)


+13 votes
Here's one I've only run across recently, but it came up more than once: Colourman.  Looks like he was the guy who mixed the paint - which was full of toxic stuff.,Collins%20English%20Dictionary.

Apparently Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes solved a case involving a Colourman:


by Shirlea Smith G2G6 Pilot (234k points)
+13 votes

Not my relatives, but two of his neighbors were "bundler in a bone factory." Bogalusa, Louisiana, 1940 Census. I could not find any information about bone factories, though I suppose a bundler bundled them up.

by Joyce Vander Bogart G2G6 Pilot (185k points)
Sounds like a lovely job, Euuugh!
+10 votes
I have an ancestor of my mother, he was Nallenmacher. His last name was Schmältzle or Schmeltzlein, I have not been able to find out his first name yet. He was buried on 31 Dec 1585 in Schmalkalden (today Thuringia).
When I first read the profession, I could not do anything with the word and thought of Schnallenmacher ("buckle maker") or Nagelmacher ("nail maker").

In further historical papers I then read that people from Scandinavia settled in Schmalkalden. By searching in Scandinavian languages I found out that Nallenmacher could be a manufacturer of teddy bears (Swedish "nalle" = teddy bear).
by Dieter Lewerenz G2G Astronaut (2.8m points)
edited by Dieter Lewerenz
+9 votes
My Stanger/Stenger ancestors started one of the first glassworks in colonial USA. I actually learned through a G2G comment about a European organization that traces genealogies of European glassmaking families, and that group pointed me towards the baptismal records of the American family. American descendants had the information all wrong!
by Barry Smith G2G6 Pilot (248k points)
+10 votes
My great-grandfather's family included a "mechanic" in 1835 which baffled me for quite a while.  The family had a business hauling freight between the Cherokee Nation and Baltimore, and it turns out a mechanic back then worked on farm equipment, kept the wagons in shape, did small metalwork, and the like.
by Kathie Forbes G2G6 Pilot (679k points)
+10 votes

Haven't come across too many; most of the unusual ones I have found are in other people's trees, but there are a handful that I either wasn't expecting, or just do not exist anymore. In the latter of those, the ones I'm fondest of is my Koehnline branch, in which the family business for several decades was ice- we owned the Koehnline Ice Company in Bridgeport, OH, & had icemen across multiple generations of the family.

Among the ones that I hadn't expected was one 3ggf who worked his whole life as a glove-cutter, & another ancestor who was a brickmaker, NOT a bricklayer, & I hadn't known that those may have been separate occupations back in the day. Also, though not really unusual, I was very excited a while back when the Fishmongers category was created for one of our WT Challenge guests' ancestors, as a 3ggf of mine from Norway was also a fishmonger.

by Thomas Koehnline G2G6 Mach 7 (75.9k points)

Here is a newspaper clipping from 1825, about making bricks which were used to build the Pontoosuc Woolen Mills. These buildings still exist (nearly 200 years later) and are used for warehouses and office buildings.

Of course the most famous Fishmonger was Molly Malone, whether she actually existed or not.
+8 votes

My great grandmother's brother, David Preston Foley is listed in 1870 census as working on a Steamboat, in 1880 census he is listed as a Steamboat man, in 1900 , he is listed as a Vile Cleaner at Furnace, in 1910 he is listed as a Laborer in the Working Out industry , I think working on a Steamboat would be a unusual job, other 2 jobs sound unusual as well 

by Janine Isleman G2G6 Mach 8 (88.9k points)
I don't think Working Out is an industry. I think it means that he did not have a fixed place of employment.
+8 votes

I wish that I could take credit for finding them, but here are some unusual occupations that were listed in various censuses - I particularly enjoy "pettifogger."

by Roger Stong G2G6 Pilot (883k points)
+7 votes
George Farnsworth Moody was a scene painter, mainly in Masonic temples. He hoped to be a camouflage painter during World War 1, but I haven't discovered if he was successful.
by Jane Dyment G2G2 (2.8k points)
+9 votes
My (Haida) 3x great grandfather's occupation was listed as a maker of "dug out war canoes" in his sons birth record form 1891. The Haida were famous for our massive canoes which could fit over 100 people and were built to withstand ocean travel.
by Alex Adkins-Langen G2G3 (4.0k points)

I just read this interesting article. An occupation to be very proud of. Thanks for sharing.

How cool!
+7 votes
Albert Terhune from the Netherlands. His family's wealth had been lost and he wished to recouped their ruined fortune and once more own a rich estate. So, he became a ribbon weaver and traveled to New Utrecht (Long Island) in Dec 1637.
by Marrianne Memmott G2G1 (1.4k points)
+8 votes
This was a volunteer research job, so it was not my own family.  The person's ancestor in question was a golf club maker!    They even made golf clubs for the emperor of Japan at the time.  It was really cool.
by Z Tyler G2G1 (1.5k points)
+6 votes
I found a "palm reader" in the 1930s (family friend).  I think the place was like Indiana or Florida or somewhere rural or semi-rural at the time that I just didn't expect at all.
by Z Tyler G2G1 (1.5k points)
+8 votes

My 2xGGF was an underhand puddler! 

He worked the in Staffordshire, England Iron Industry in the mid-1800s

‘Puddling was done in reverberatory furnaces in which the iron came into contact with the flame alone. These furnaces possessed two doors, through the larger of which the furnace was charged while the smaller was used by the puddler when he stirred or worked theiron. 

The master puddler was helped by an under-hand and, as the work was extremely laborious, the two shifts in 24 hours worked early in the century, had been increased to three by 1839. The ‘gentleman puddler’ was among the aristocrats of the working class, a craftsman with a craftsman’s foibles. “One must have a short neck that his furnaces may work fast, another must have a long neck that it may work moderately slow” Upon the puddler depended the quality of the bar iron and the demand for puddlers was alway greater than the supply.

Each single puddling furnace took a charge of 4 1/2 cwt ., which the underhand exposed to the flame until it commenced to melt. With the appearance of his “candles” – spurts of flame as gaseous material escaped – the puddler began working the iron, opening and turning it with his rabble to facilitate the escape of impurities, if left, would blister and dirty the iron in later processes. As the iron “came to nature” it became less disturbed and it thickened, and the balling was then undertaken as quickly as possible. “An expert hand”, it was stated, “will ball it like snow”............’

From: A.H. John. The Industrial Development of South Wales 1750-1850 Merton Priory Press 1995

* 1 hundredweights = 112 pounds

by M Ross G2G6 Pilot (509k points)
My John MacBean came to the Saugus Iron Works in New Hampshire as a prisoner of war because of Cromwell, and he was forced into a name change having the Mac removed. I'd love to know what his job was there before he was indentured, then married his Indenturer daughter. He made good in New World. The Iron Works is now a museum. I was able to see someone's home video online sitting with a mutual distant cousin to watch. Fun all around!
Oliver Cromwell 25 April 1599 – 3 September 1658, from the English Civil War ?
Yes.When in the spring of 1650, when Oliver Cromwell threatened Scotland with invasion, King Charles tried to raise an army but no success until he swore to the mac beans that he would uphold "The Covenant". A year the Battle of Dunbar, Sept 3, 1651, the Scottish were in good position to defend themselves, but through the perfidy of the king, there was no ammunition. Even so, the words of Oliver Cromwell himself, the Highland ers very nearly won the day fighting with muskets and clubs and using stones and another else as weapons. However, Cromwell won and Scotland was no more an independent nation. John then became a prisoner of war and shipped to America.
+7 votes
1865 Brooklyn, NY

Jacob Solman, age: 31, born: Germany, occupation: night scavenger

A google search of night scavenger: "one who cleans cess pools, latrine, privies" (night soil refers to human waste)
by Laurie Donohue G2G Crew (800 points)
+8 votes
While doing research for my friend, he had an ancestor in Massachusetts who was a fresco painter! Looks like he was commissioned for the Memorial Hall (for Civil War vets) in Windsor Locks CT in 1890. We plan on visiting one day - very neat.
by Adriana Hazelton G2G6 Mach 1 (15.5k points)
+9 votes

In researching local newspapers I discovered that my second great uncle, Charles Fleck, had raised skunks.  The article in the Brown County Journal (De Pere, WI) from 21 NOV 1918 states:  "Chas. Fleck and Will Cavil, who are conducting a skunk farm, have started killing for the hides."

by Mark Reinhart G2G Crew (650 points)

Here's an interesting article about skunk farming.

+9 votes

I found a female ancestor listed as a ragpicker, which I found very sad when I found out it is "a person who picks up rags and other waste material from the streets, refuse heaps, etc., for a livelihood."

by Angela Dicks G2G3 (3.5k points)

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