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Picturing Your Ancestor’s Occupation


Blacksmith. Railroad Engineer. Chef. Logger. Farmer.

What occupations did your ancestors have? What do you know about those occupations? You might have proof of their jobs from records such as the census, city directory, or a child’s vital record but what did that occupation “look like?”

My dad, and the men in my paternal line for 3 generations, worked for the railroad. I know what that looked like. I visited the railroad yard with my grandfather and sat in the seat he spent his days in as an locomotive engineer. In my mind, I can still see that day and that up close experience. But I need to use images to pass along that part of my paternal family history to my children.

But what about other ancestors? Details about their occupation fills in the holes of their life story. Learning more about their occupation, telling that story using records and illustrating it with images (whether they themselves are in the pictures or not) helps bring our family history to life.

Sea Sponges at market

I started wondering about occupational images when I recently bought some postcards that looked “interesting.” The postcards are part of a series depicting the sea sponges industry. Those images led me to additional research about the jobs involved in the procuring and selling of sea sponges. Lucky for me my son is a scuba instructor and he provided me information about the divers tasked with sponge collection and provided me reference materials.

All that because of a postcard.

What Images Exist of Your Ancestor’s Occupation?

What images can you find for the occupation your ancestor had? Occupational images might be found on:

  • Postcards
  • Stereographs
  • Lithographs
  • Paintings
  • Photographs
  • Newspaper
  • Magazines
  • Books
  • Patents
  • Maps

What types of images are you looking for? Those depicting the actual job are an obvious choice but what about patent illustrations of a tool or device that had to with your ancestor’s job? What about the end result of their job (horseshoes for a blacksmith, planes for Rosie the Riveters)? How about a photo of where they worked?

Where can you find these? Start with digital collections. These can be through libraries and archives or separate digital collections. Some of my favorites include:

Don't forget to also search eBay. If you have an account, set up an alert for that occupation. That way you automate your search.

Illustrate Your Family Story

Everyone loves to look at images. Stories are more powerful when they are illustrated. Consider telling your ancestor’s occupation story with images.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.


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I love how Legacy gives me new ideas all the time for bringing my ancestors to life again. I've saved photos of ships my family traveled on, military bases where they received training or served, battlegrounds where they fought, homes where they lived, all through the magic of the internet. Now I have another area on which to focus: occupations! Thanks so much, Ms. Philibert-Ortega!

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