Monday, January 30, 2012

A Song Of Occupations

A song for occupations!
In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields I find
the developments,
And find the eternal meanings.

-Walt Whitman

I have been lost in the past again, spending my days online at I discovered an amazing source of information that, for me, is more fascinating than the government censuses. My family on my father's side is from Peoria, Illinois and has city directories for Peoria starting with the late 1800's up to the late 1940's. These city directories give you a trove of information. As with a phone book, city directories give you name and address but they also give you the listee's occupation.


And the custom at the turn of the 19th century in Peoria was to put a listing in the directory once you had a job. That means you can tell if the John Smith you found is your John Smith just by looking to see if he is living at the same address as his father, mother, sisters or brothers. I found my great-uncle this way. At age 15 he had a job as a driver for a grocery store. He was living with his father, my great-grandfather, who worked as a laborer. At the same time his brother was working as a fireman on the Toledo, Peoria, and Western Railway, and his sister was working as an Inspector for a large department store.

After pursuing many of the yearly Peoria City Directory listings for my great-grandfather's family I see that I come from people who worked with their hands in what are known as blue collar jobs. This makes sense as Peoria was an industrial town with many factories. What I did not expect were the numerous positions my relatives held throughout the years. In addition to the above jobs my relatives worked as:

Apprentice (Occupation unknown)


Clerk (Department store)
Clerk (Furniture store)
Clerk (Meat Market)
Clerk (Peoria Gas & Electric)
Clerk (Tailor and Dry Cleaners)


Commercial Traveler

Debt Collector


Driver (Bus & Baggage Company)
Driver (Department store)
Driver (Grocery store)

Detective (Peoria & Pekin Union Railway)

Electrician (Peoria & Pekin Union Railway)

Harness Maker

Helper (Boiler Manufacturer)

Insurance Agent

Laborer (Farm Implements Company)
Laborer (General)

Mechanic (Gas Tractor)

Pipe fitter

Repairman (Peoria Gas & Electric)



Shoe Repairman



Watchman (Peoria & Pekin Union Railway)

Quite a variety of jobs there. More impressive or disturbing is the fact that these are the occupations of four people- my great-grandfather and his three children. Only two these job titles belongs to my great-grandfather, Harness Maker and General Laborer, but I am sure there are many different jobs hiding behind the title General Laborer. Of all the jobs, there is only one that I am ashamed to see on the list and that would be Debt Collector. Great-uncle Chauncey, how could you?

I do wonder why they held so many different jobs. Was it dissatisfaction with one job and thinking another job would be better? Was it a search for better pay? Was it the economical times? Was it political, too much talk about unions? Was it the Irish disease (alcoholism) and therefore an inability to hold on to a job for very long? It might be a combination of all these reasons, I'll never know. If I could only go back in time.

Correction: This is a occupation list for five people; my grandfather and his four children. I forgot to include my own grandfather. He had three of the occupations on the list; barber, cobbler/shoemaker and shoe repairman. My great-aunt Anna was a domestic, inspector (I found out the department store made china.), and a seamstress. My great-uncle Guy had all the driving jobs and was the apprentice, the clerk in a meat market, and the waiter. All the other jobs were held my Great-Uncle Chauncey.


Blue Witch said...

If I could only go back in time.

Give it time...

Fascinating stuff.  Such directories don't exist over here, unfortunately.

la pergrina said...

Treasure toves, BW, treasure troves. :)

Hawk said...

I wonder what a "Commercial Traveler" was. Someoe who travelled for commerce, traveling salesman, deal maker / closer?

la pergrina said...

You second guess is the correct one, Hawk, it was a traveling salesman.