Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records – Part 7, The Work World

Work is and always has been an integral part of life. However, the way work is viewed has changed through time. For example, the Puritans lived by the saying “idle hands are the devil’s tools.” Everyone who was physically capable worked, from the eldest man to the youngest child. Working was necessary for life and success at one’s work happened for, and because of, God.

As in New England, life in colonial Virginia consisted of work. There was always work to be done, whether it be planting in the fields, cooking and sewing in the house or feeding the animals. Virginians didn’t have quite the same view of work and its relationship to God, but everyone needed to work.

What jobs existed in colonial America? For starters, there were shepsters, baxters, cordwainers and colliers. None of these is a familiar term to us today.

There are a number of resources, both non-fiction and historical fiction, describing a day in the life of colonial people, which included daily tasks and work. Some of these are educational sites for teachers, but they provide a good overview.

American Social History Project

Daily Life on a Colonial Plantation, 1709-1711

The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter

Dear America – 1607-1776 – Colonial Period

Diary of a Colonial Rebel (Lady) 1775

Excerpts from Virginia Women: The First Two Hundred Years on Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial America: Jobs, Trades and Occupations

Colonial Life: Daily Life on a Farm

Colonial Life: Daily Life in the City

Colonial Williamsburg Trades

Colonial Trades

Jobs and work life changed dramatically forever with the advent of the Industrial Revolution; Americans moved into the era of modern life.

How did needed work skills change? Who made up the work force and what were working conditions like?

The Industrial Revolution

Types of Jobs Children Had During the Industrial Revolution

11 Jobs from 1850 That Are Totally Extinct

Finding information about an ancestor’s or relative’s individual work record is not an easy task. First, employment records are confidential, if they exist, and often destroyed after so many years, even if a company has remained in business.


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