Puddlers, Stewards and Other (Pre)Occupations

I am lucky: My ancestors haven’t held any jobs with mysterious names, unless you count the maddeningly imprecise term “laborer.”

One of my great-grandfathers may have been a “puddler,” which is someone who worked at an iron furnace with a long-handled rake, opening the furnace and forming molten iron into a ball that could be rolled out into bars or sheets. Then again, he might just have been a peddler. It’s spelled both ways in a couple of places, and there is no hard evidence yet as to which spelling is the typo.

This same great-grandfather was later a steward on a tugboat in Brooklyn, which is a little mysterious, since I associate boat stewards with the care of passengers, who would seem to be in short supply on a tugboat. Finding a detailed job description for a tugboat steward in 1910 is  another item on the to-do list.

In the first 20 years of the 20th century, there are a lot of waterfront-related jobs in my family tree: tugboat steward, tugboat fireman, dry dock worker, patternmaker in a shipyard. They were South Brooklyn people, and South Brooklyn was all about shipping in those days.

Still, I am jealous of people who have quirky job titles in their genealogy, and I like reading about them in case one ever crops up in mine. Here are some cool links about strange job titles:

Old Occupation Names at the Hall family genealogy site: Really extensive, with detailed definitions.
Ancestral occupations at Rootsweb: Another encyclopedic list, clickable from A to Z.
The Strangest Names for Occupations: For the greatest hits, try this list. There are real gems here.  (Being a “honey dipper” isn’t nearly as pleasant as it sounds.)


LibraryQuest 2010: Part Two

The first 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy challenge from Amy at We Tree was a great excuse for me to re-visit the genealogy and local history shelves at my hometown haunt, the Montclair (N.J.) Public Library.

We’re fortunate to have a room dedicated to the local history collection. It contains so much interesting material that I am frankly bitter that I don’t actually have family roots here; I just live here. Here’s some of what is available:

In the general stacks:
• A global genealogical tour! I counted books on 10 different ethnicities, in addition to guides about general research, preserving documents, writing family histories and conducting oral-history interviews.
• The township’s old Field Books, listing property lots, their owners and tax assessments. Because of them, I know my house was built in 1914 and the tax assessor valued it at $3,400. (It is worth more today, at least for now.)

In the local history room:
• Microfilms for our local weekly, starting in 1877. (They’re only partially indexed, alas, but there are also dozens of clipping files arranged by subject.)
• Boxes and boxes of document collections about local groups, from the township council to Boy Scouts.
• Personal memoirs.
• Microfilmed editions of the Social Register.
• A survey of architecturally significant buildings.

Find of the Day:
A slim volume containing bound copies of The Stroller, a sublimely bratty weekly magazine from the mid-1920s. The Stroller specialized in breathless details of who in town was marrying whom, where the beautiful people were going on vacation and which prominent townspeople (unnamed) had fallen off the wagon again.

Gossip is eternal; so are the joys of research. I hope everyone else has as much fun digging as I did.


Researching in your pajamas

When I was a child, my library card was sturdy cardboard, inset with a metal tab, embossed with my ID number. Remember those?

Now my card has an electronic bar code, and libraries have certainly expanded their horizons.  As a kid, I’d never have imagined the riches I could uncover in the comfort of my home, 24/7. Here’s some of what I can access from my home computer, using my little old library card:

Genealogy collections: Of course, many libraries carry Ancestry.com, but you must physically be in the library to use it. But many libraries also offer online access to HeritageQuest, where you can search censuses, government document collections, genealogical journal articles and more.

Newspapers: Before you drag yourself outside on a cold and snowy day, consider how many newspaper databases are accessible online. The New York Times electronic database (1851-2005) is one of the most common. Other useful indexes your library may carry include the “America’s Obituaries and Death Notices” database and Newsbank (America’s Newspapers), which currently carries 350 newspapers.

Digital photo collections: Oh, my gosh, do I love these. More and more libraries (like my hometown library) are digitizing their collections of historical photos. I can lose myself in the New York Public Library’s digital collections for hours if I’m not careful. Not to mention the NYPL’s videos on historic topics, also viewable on the site.

Digital maps: Another secret vice.  Lately I’ve been rooting around in the Sanborn fire insurance maps for New Jersey, 1867-1970, finding out fascinating things about the neighborhood in which I grew up. To get an idea of how vast this concept is, the Library of Congress has catalogued fire insurance maps of some 12,000 cities and towns in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Not only are they topographically detailed, but because they were intended to help insurers determine risk, they also go into incredible detail about building and street construction, down to the placement of windows and types of roofs. If your ancestors, like mine, were town folks, these maps are an amazing resource.

So pour yourself a cup of coffee and log into your library’s website. You’d be surprised how much you can get done in your pajamas.

Note: I started writing this before the first 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy challenge came up from Amy Coffin at WeTree, urging us to actually visit our local library and report back on their family history resources. Never fear – I don’t need much urging to physically enter my library, and I’ll be taking up the challenge in my next post.


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