Ancestral Occupations

By Maureen A. Taylor

Do you know what your ancestors did for work? My paternal grandfather painted houses and so did his father. My maternal grandmother worked in a cotton mill alongside the rest of her family. Their stories were passed down in the family and evidence in documents like city directories and census records added more details.

Throughout the centuries, men, women and even children labored to support their families. You may think you know the whole story behind your ancestral work history, but there could be missing pieces.

Women often worked outside the home before marriage, then afterwards stayed home to raise children. However, many of these women also had jobs or juggled multiple volunteer positions. During World War II, women returned to the workforce to fill jobs once held by men. One of my aunts found employment in a ship-building factory.

In this picture a woman welds pieces of a cooling system at the Washtenaw County, Mich., Willow Run Bomber Plant in July 1942. A woman photographer, Ann Rosener, took the picture. You can view more of these WWII photos at the Library of Congress website.


Child labor laws are a 20th century phenomena. Many of our grandparents (and earlier generations) worked in fields and factories.

In support of child labor laws, photographer Lewis Hine documented children working in mills in the early 20th century. His captions sometimes include partial names and identifying details.

Joe Manning fills in the rest. His Lewis Hine project is amazing! He takes those bits and pieces from the Hine captions, does some research, and then contacts relatives to tell them that he’s found a picture of a family member working as a child. In most cases, they have no idea that their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents worked as children.

Photographs of our ancestors at work are not very common. Studio portraits rarely capture individuals in work attire. I wish I had a picture of my grandfather painting or of my grandmother in a factory, but I don’t. If you have occupational photographs I’d love to see them. Follow the “how to submit your photo” guidelines.

This week, take a few minutes to interview family members about their work history. You might have a few surprises in store.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album