May 14, 2021

Exploring our Ancestors’ Occupations

May 14, 2021

When they’re thinking about the work their ancestors did, most American genealogists tend to assume that their ancestors were farmers. After all, the abundance of free, or low cost, land was one of the major pulls of immigration to America. It is true that many of our ancestors before the 20th century were farmers – at least part of the time. In those earlier times, raising all or most of their own food was  common.


However, many of our ancestors also pursued another trade or other jobs during various periods in their lives. The occupations that they chose or were forced to choose can tell us a lot about their lives. Occupations that no longer exist can be especially fascinating to learn about. For example, my Norwegian great grandfather was a farmer in his younger years, but moved to Oslo and became a  lamplighter at the end of the 19th century. Until I found my ancestor’s occupation listed on a census, I might have imagined that a big city like Oslo would have had electric lights by the time my great grandfather moved there in about 1890. That’s if, I had ever thought of how Oslo’s streets were lighted at all. Instead, when my grandfather was working there, Oslo was lit by gas lights.


My grandfather and the other lamplighters in Oslo made their rounds twice a day – once in the evening to light the lamps and again in the morning to extinguish them. Because of its northern location, Oslo experiences long days during the summer and short ones during the winter. Sunset is during early afternoon in the winter, and sunrise doesn’t come until mid-morning. In the summer, the opposite occurs when the sun doesn’t set until midnight or later and rises only three or four hours later. A lamplighter’s job hours varied depending on what season it was. I can imagine that made my grandfather’s home life difficult, not just for him but for the rest of the family. Some seasons they would seldom see him and during others he would need to sleep when everyone else was up and about. Perhaps this erratic schedule, not to mention trudging the streets in Oslo’s cold and damp weather contributed to my grandfather’s early demise due to tuberculosis in 1901.


Even at the time my great grandfather was lighting all of those street lights, he was practicing an occupation that was nearly obsolete. Electric lights replaced gas ones within a few years of his death. Because of his early death, few stories were passed down about my great grandfather. Learning about his occupation has given me a window into at least one part of his life.


Exploring the details of our ancestors’ occupations allows us to see them as more than just birth, marriage and death dates on a genealogy chart. Next week I’ll talk more about those ancestors who were “just farmers.” It turns out that, like my great grandfather, there was more to their lives than it seems.



Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large