“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more…”
The confusion and displacement which Dorothy Gale voices when she steps out into the land of Oz for the first time in MGM’s iconic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz should resonate with many family historians. Just as Dorothy found herself in an unfamiliar world, so do we find ourselves trying to understand the social customs, attitudes and language of historical cultures when we research our forebears. And in general, the further back in time we go, the less familiar their worlds become.
Historical occupations can be a particular stumbling block when we’re not immersed in the culture and language of a particular place and period. Remember – context is almost everything. If you lack the sense of local or temporal context to interpret what you’re seeing in historical records, it’s nigh on impossible to reach a sensible conclusion.
In previous instalments of Bringing Home the Bacon, I’ve talked about general resources for puzzling out the meaning of unfamiliar job terms and suggested strategies for predominantly urban jobs from and after the era of mass mechanisation. Keep these in mind, because you’ll need to use them in tandem with era- and place-specific strategies (and, more often than not, for rural communities) if you’re going to decipher older occupational terms, which is what I’m going to focus on in this article.
So – if a historical occupation on a record from a much earlier era has left you with that not-in-Kansas-anymore feeling, here are five ideas for locating resources to help you puzzle out that pre-1750 mystery job term…
1. Picture the occupational landscape before the Industrial Revolution
Research into 19th century life is one thing; step back two or three more centuries and the landscape becomes still less familiar – and although there are sources to help us, there are generally fewer contemporary secondary texts to use as lookups. You’ll have to get creative!
Speaking very broadly, if you’re researching British ancestors who lived before the 19th century, you are more likely to observe them living in rural settlements; they’re also more likely to be engaged in agricultural or craft work. We should be careful not to over-generalise or assume too much, though: cities did exist before the Industrial Revolution!
Academic research by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (CAMPOP)  suggests that the dominance of agricultural employment had largely ended by 1700, challenged by the rise of secondary-sector manufacturing. Plenty of “manufacturing” went on in rural settlements, but with an emphasis on manual labour, and with successful industries including textiles, brewing and malting (Osborn’s 2021 book  offers insights into rural manufacturing). You can see this shift towards manufacturing in CAMPOP’s graph of the male labour force for England and Wales, shown above.
So don’t restrict yourself to researching a single person, but find out as much as possible about the place they lived in: this will help you understand their environment more. You may remember me saying back in Part 1 that thinking about the WHERE and WHEN of your research is key. Answering these two questions will give you the context you need to start looking in sensible places for more information about those unfamiliar occupational terms. Overall, if you come across a pre-Industrial Revolution occupation which you can’t fathom, your two best options are to explore resources for jobs in agriculture and traditional crafts. Remember: a specific, well-planned search in sensible places is more likely to yield positive results – in this case, an explanation for a historical occupational term which you don’t recognise.
So before you jump off into generic searches for agricultural or craft jobs, think about context. Some preparatory contextual investigations won’t reveal the meaning of that unfamiliar occupation, but they will hone and direct your onward searches for the answer.
Considering occupations in England or Wales? Meet Economies Past
It’s time to return to the CAMPOP site, but to explore a fantastic, free tool called Economies Past. To quote CAMPOP, the site “allows users to create and view maps of occupational structure across England and Wales from 1600-2011.” A zoomable map in the main field of view (as shown above) depicts parishes as coloured blocks, shaded according to the proportion of its workers who were engaged in your chosen sector or industry at a particular point in time. The right-hand panel allows you to change the era or sector under consideration.
Economies Past is a goldmine of information: zoom out on the map to observe trends across the whole of England and Wales; zoom in on one parish of interest and see whether primary or secondary industry dominated in a particular era, or whether local manufacturing centred around textiles, construction, metalwork or shoemaking. The tool has reduced coverage for early periods around 1600, but it is well worth your time.
So if you are puzzling out a pre-1750 unfamiliar occupation, I would advise noting the parish and year and exploring this time and place on Economies Past. It should give you a better understanding of the occupational makeup of the area you’re studying, helping you to direct your occupational searches and contextual reading towards resources which are likely to be more relevant. Here are some key resources you might want to consider…
2. Delve into the HISCO database
Heed the saying, “change is the only constant.”
Occupations reflect the time we live in; the nature of a job, and the language we use to describe it, change over time. Such developments can present a challenge for comparative historians who study how jobs have evolved over centuries. Large-scale studies about the changing nature of employment require an adequate classification scheme for historical occupations, one which acknowledges the variation in terminology and job requirements over time. So on that theme, let me introduce you to HISCO…
The Historical International Classification of Occupations (HISCO) is a still-growing project, developed by academic historians from around the world. HISCO aims to extend modern occupational classification schemes to create an updated classification that’s suited to studying historical employment. Each occupation is assigned its own code, allowing HISCO to group multiple terms together when they are effectively different terms for the same job, or work in vastly similar spheres.
“But I’m not performing a large-scale study,” I hear you cry, “I just want to know what my ancestor’s strange occupation is!” Fear not – what makes HISCO particularly useful for the family historian is its search facility for historical occupational titles. Let’s see how you could use HISCO if you found a cainer in rural England and wanted to know what this job involved.
Navigate to the HISCO search interface (shown in the image above) and type your mystery occupation into the Search Term box. You can run the search just with that information, or you can add in a country or language too. Our basic search returns an exact match, shown below.
Clicking on the occupational title takes you through to a listing page for cainer, along with the occupational code it’s been assigned in HISCO. Clicking on this code (94290, in the case of cainer) returns a description page which covers all jobs under this code. You can also run a separate image search on HISCO to find engravings and other depictions of workers.
Congratulations – you’ve managed to locate the industry! We now know that a cainer was a craft occupation within either the basket-making or furniture-weaving industry. The HISCO description is based upon a 19th century interpretation in this case, so we would perhaps expect a manual, non-mechanised role if researching in earlier eras, but this is a great start.
3. Use tools as a hook to find your way
Now, this tip is a more niche suggestion: not everyone will be lucky enough to have inherited hand tools from their ancestors. Yet some of my favourite interactions to emerge from my daily #OccupationOfTheDay on Twitter have involved family historians getting in touch to say that an image or some footage I’ve posted for one of the featured occupations has helped them to identify a work tool left to them by a relative.
So if you’re part of the exceptionally fortunate minority to have inherited historical hand-tools, use these as a research lead for exploring your ancestor’s occupational life. Even if you can’t identify a tool, you can turn to the Tools and Trades History Society (TATHS) for advice. A registered charity set up in 1983, TATHS aims to share knowledge about hand tools and the historical trades which used them.
Part of the TATHS website includes a Mystery Tools page (shown in the image on the left). This great initiative effectively crowdsources your questions about historical implements and tools, in the hope that one of the Society’s members might recognise them. Classifying a hand tool might at least help you identify the industry or sector of work, and so help you find more specific resources to hunt for that unfamiliar occupational term. You might also want to take a look at the Resources section of the TATHS website: downloads include a handy bibliography pointing you to sources which explain and define a number of historical crafts and trade occupations.
And while we’re on the subject of tools, don’t forget to search probate records in case your ancestor left a will – these weren’t just restricted to the wealthy, and some craftsmen and tradesmen may bequeath specific tools or equipment in their wills which can inform the modern-day researcher about their working life.
4. Ask the specialists: seek out organisations for rural crafts
The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) maintains a list of crafts (see left) – these focus on modern, rather than historical terms, but are a good source of further information once you’ve identified the industry associated with an occupation. Its listings include descriptions of craft processes and may help you to understand the daily tasks your ancestor undertook in the course of their work.
So let’s revisit that cainer from earlier. Once the HISCO database has suggested its association with basket-making crafts, you can use the Heritage Craft Association‘s list of crafts to find out more about the history, origin and geographical spread of this type of work.
Their general page for basket making offers a historical and geographical overview, but also names several subdivisions of basketry – including chair caning, which looks like a good possibility to follow up. The HCA’s discussion of canework offers intriguing suggestions as to the training process, saying that “there is no evidence of there ever having been formal apprenticeship schemes – the craft was traditionally taught through informal ‘bench top’ training.” The HCA also suggests links to the Basketmakers’ Association which has its own archive, and the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, whose records are held by the Guildhall and produced at LMA. Even if specialist craft websites can’t give you an immediate definition of your mystery occupation, they may act as a portal to resources which can.
And when you think you’re dealing with a rural occupation, The Museum of English Rural Life (affectionately known as The MERL) provides downloadable bibliographies for agriculture and craft occupations, directing you to subject-specific sources to enlighten you further. The MERL also has a Virtual Reading Room, although the registration form for the service has been listed as “in maintenance” for some months now, so keep an eye out for sign-ups reactivating in the future.
5. Go back in time: explore the work of medieval writers
Back in Part 1 we thought about the language barrier that exists between us and the earlier generations we research. Consulting historical works ready-transcribed for a modern audience can help to bridge that divide – so why not seek out texts on crafts and occupations, as written by medieval and early modern writers?
Although scholars have not reached a consensus as to his true identity, a medieval author writing under the pseudonym Theophilus Presbyter produced the work On Divers Arts in or around the 12th century. A treatise on the processes involved in painting, glassmaking and metalwork, it offers a fascinating insight into the work carried out by wire drawers, gold beaters and other craftsmen.
For instance, finding a dragher in your family tree may prove baffling, until research using the language resources of Part 1 suggests that it’s a “dragger“, or wire-drawer. Once you know this, the descriptions and diagrams of Theophilus provide some fantastic descriptions of the wire-making process, through extrusion and the use of shaped dies. Many medieval craft processes survived well into the early modern period and beyond with little change, so it’s worth consulting a translation if you have ancestors who worked in these industries.
Register for a free account at the Internet Archive to borrow a digital copy of Theophilus’ treatise for an hour at a time.
Some final thoughts…
Occupations and the history of work form an immense field of study: one that is ever-changing and offering a wealth of research and educational resources if you know where to look and are prepared to put in some time and effort.
Older, rural occupations are likely to take some time to figure out and you will need to combine the general resources from Part 1 with the more specific ones I’ve mentioned here, as follows:
- If the occupation you’ve seen occurs between 1700 and 1900, look up the word, or its constituent parts, in the English Dialect Dictionary, or in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. This may give you a direct definition or allow you to infer a basic meaning;
- Search for the mystery occupation in published literature, including academic resources on JSTOR and historical texts on services such as the Internet Archive;
- If you’re researching in England or Wales, use the CAMPOP Economies Past tool to understand the dominant industries in your parish of interest at that time;
- Delve into resources from craft- or trade-specific organisations such as the Heritage Crafts Association, specialist museums, or historical trade/craft guilds;
- Once language resources and contextual work have offered clues as to the nature of the work, consult modern-day renderings of the work of medieval writers to understand the processes involved.
Earlier on I talked about the need to step into the mindset of a rural villager as a route to understanding an unfamiliar, pre-Industrial Revolution occupation. Remember the golden rule: every occupation, if it persisted for any amount of time, did so because it held intrinsic value to the community around it. Without that value, there would be no incentive to pay for the work and little point in pursuing it as a job.
So if you find yourself completely stumped, return to thinking about the place. Where was it? Do you know, or can you find out, which types of industry were prevalent there at the time you’re researching? Puzzling through historical occupations from further back in time can present a really tough challenge sometimes, but with some persistence, patience and a willingness to get many lookup resources, secondary texts and primary sources working together, you will probably get to the answer eventually.
And with all the knowledge you’ve gained along the way, your research will be immeasurably richer for it. You’ll be back from Oz in no time…
 Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (CAMPOP). Research program page for The occupational structure of Britain 1379-1911. https://www.campop.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/occupations/
 Helen Osborn. Our Village Ancestors: A Genealogist’s Guide to Understanding the English Rural Past. Robert Hale/Crowood Press (2021). https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Our-Village-Ancestors-by-Helen-Osborn/9780719814167
Have you found these resources useful in researching occupations in your family tree? Or did one of your forebears have an unusual occupation which you have yet to puzzle out? Share your stories in the comments below!