Old Occupations - A Tour of Jobs from the Past by Chris Krawczyk

Everyone involved in Genealogy knows that a large percentage of last names come from occupations: Smith, Taylor, Farmer, and Mason are a few examples that quickly come to mind. Anyone reading this article can quickly list several others, quite possibly including their own last name, in a matter of seconds.

What I found most interesting when I started to do some research into the subject of older professions is how many of those occupations are now extinct, lost to changes in technology and the march of time itself. What is also interesting is how the surnames that derive from some of these long extinct occupations survive today, long after the occupations have faded into history.

Here are some of the more fascinating occupations I found in my travels. Some can be tied to surnames that survive today, some I just found interesting and thought you might as well. Who knows, you may come across one or more of these professions in your research if you're fortunate enough to make it back far enough:


A person responsible for ensuring that the poor received alms. Alms were generally donations to churches for the purposes of caring for the poor.


Someone who made and sold drugs and medicines.


A person who made crossbows.


"Butts" originally referred to bottles of wine or beer. Hence, the original Butlers were responsible for caring for the wine cellar and supervising the staff who maintained and served food and beverages.


A bell maker.


Were workmen who transported materials to the site of a building under construction (by cart, hence the name).


Responsible for the chamber of a castle and quite possibly also the person responsible for the administration and finances of castle occupants. Property Manager would be the modern equivalent.

Clark or Clerk

Actually used to refer to priests (derived from "Cleric") and in later centuries (and modern times) became associated with those who do administrative work.


Someone who repaired shoes.


Someone who makes or sells coal or charcoal.


Someone who made and fixed barrels.


Someone who made shoes. Also known as Shoemaker.


A term used to refer to the base peasantry. Essentially general laborers.


Someone who transported water and heated it for use.


Someone who took care of hunting dogs.


Someone who shrinks and thickens cloth fibers, most often wool, by wetting and beating them repeatedly. In medieval times the best way to prepare wool was to stomp on the wool for hours in vats of stale urine. The ammonia helped to soften the wool.


Not a job you would've wanted. This person had the unfortunate task of emptying latrine pits. You can see why the surname didn't take.


Someone who sells mens clothing.


Contrary to the modern vision of the cyber terrorist, a Hacker was someone who made the hoes used in farming.


Someone who tended hedges, a specialized Gardiner. Also possibly someone who was responsible for farm supplies as "ward" often implies responsibility ("Warden" for example).


Using ropes, and walking along shore, pulled boats along a river or canal.


Someone who worked with flint.


Someone who cut and polished precious gems.


Someone who transported goods from big ships in the harbor to the shore via small boat.


Someone who made horse saddles, riding crops, and other horse gear.


Officer in charge of the castles horses and all persons having to do with those horses. Marshals also supervised any matters pertaining to transportation.


A naker is a small drum. Hence, a Nakerer is a medieval drummer.


Someone whose job is to remove head lice. They picked nits.


Someone who took care of horses and stables.


Derived from the palms found in the Holy Land, Palm Sunday, etc... a Palmer was a pilgrim who had been to the Holy Land and successfully returned.


Someone who made wigs.


Often associated today with carrying goods, or luggage on a train, Porter originally came from the French word for door. Hence, porters were doormen responsible for entrances. Kind of a cross between janitors and security guards.


Someone whose job is to stomp around in clay to help make bricks.


Still found today in the government of many small townships. A Reeve originally was responsible for managing any work on his lord's property, making sure deadlines were met, budgets observed, and that nothing was stolen. A medieval project manager.


In the general population someone who dug mines or tunnels, in the old military a specialist in building forts and defences.


Responsible for washing and cleaning the kitchen. The modern equivalent would be a dishwasher or janitor perhaps.


A person who trimmed cloth being manufactured.


Used more recently to refer to an older unmarried woman, it originally referred to a woman who earned her living spinning yarn.

Steward or Stewart

Supervised household staff and took care of estate administration. Again the presence of "ward" is a clue that it is a responsible position.


The word "stews" actually used to commonly refer to brothels. A Stewsman was hence a medieval pimp - a brothelkeeper.


Was not a member of a notorious union as unions did not exist. The name came from someone who drove a team of horses or oxen.


Made leather straps or leather laces for use in a variety of applications from clothing to sacks (anything requiring binding).


Was actually someone who made scabbards (the sheaths for swords) for military use. Derived from the French "Vaginarii".

This concludes our tour of old jobs. I hope you've enjoyed it.


Original from:  http://www.familyhistoryplace.net/newsletter