Jobs seem to be on the minds of everyone in this current economic climate and a look back at how residents of Wayne County earned a living in 1850 reveals a marked contrast with occupations of today. In 1850 Wayne County was far from a wild frontier town, but living was far from easy, particularly for the largely rural townships.
Employment was limited to a few industries. The 1850 census records do not always tell the complete story because many men listed their occupation as farmer but usually found it necessary to work at other trades to support their families. Making it through the long winters when farming was not an option required the farmer to seek other employment.
By 1850, the D&H Canal and Gravity Railroad had been in operation for about twenty-two years and was a steady source of employment needed for the operation, maintenance and improvements of both systems.
Other occupations related to the canal were boat builders who, in turn, hired carpenters. Census records were seldom specific and, more often than not, the entry for occupation is listed as laborer. The individual could be a laborer on the canal, the gravity railroad, a stone quarry or some other industry. The location where the individual lived was usually a clue.
If he lived in Scott Township it was safe to assume he did not work on the canal or the railroad. In the areas of the county where tanning was the main industry it might be possible that the individual worked at a tannery. The term "tanner" was only applied to the owner and operator of the tannery.
It is interesting to see how differently individuals identified their occupations to the census taker. Joseph Atkinson of Hawley, who was a very wealthy man who owned several acres of land, a hotel and made a fortune as a lumberman is simply listed as a "farmer." Many farmers called their own sons "laborers" while others elevated them to "farmer" although in most cases the sons did not own any land.
The lumber industry employed "sawyers" although we do not see that term today. Many beginning genealogists are fooled into thinking their ancestors were attorneys when their job actually felling trees. The confusion results from the penmanship of the 19th century in which the "L" and the "S" were maddeningly similar. There were many saw mills throughout the county in that period but far from all of them were commercial.
It was not unusual for a farmer to have a saw mill on his farm to provide lumber for his own use and occasionally that of his neighbors.
In 1850 the term "miller" could refer to a saw mill, grist mill or millwright who made doors, windows, etc.
Page 2 of 2 - Very little was machine made so many of the occupations may be unfamiliar in today's lexicon. A cooper made barrels. Axes, harnesses, wagons, etc. were made by skilled craftsmen. A person listed as a "stick polisher" was someone who worked in one of the several walking stick and umbrella factories. Occupations for ladies, aside from "keeping house," included "seamstress" or "milliner."
Some of the 1850 census entries are mystifying. One person is listed as a "ship's carpenter" but, since no ships were built in the county, could he have been a boat builder for the canal company? The census taker was required to read and write but often his spelling would raise some questions. The 1850 census listed only one "sircus" rider. There are two possible interpretations for this entry. The circus did make occasional visits to the county, so one wonders if he was just "between jobs." It was also true that itinerant preachers or "circuit riders" traveled from congregation to congregation. Since unemployment insurance did not exist at that time, it is hoped that it was the latter.
As years go by occupations are phased out to be replaced by newer ones created by the advancement of technology and changing life style. Drastic changes may have been made in what one does for a living and how it is done but it still is all in a day's work.