Week 5 Earning a Living

Week 6            Earning a Living

Without looking at my research, just sitting here thinking about what my ancestors did to earn a living, nothing jumps out at me. Of course, like so much work that we do around genealogy this prompt seems male-centric. Does earning a living mean the term used historically to define work outside the home as “gainful employment?” This would not include women working in the home.  And like so much of historic family research, women become hidden behind the records that either didn’t ask about them or just didn’t record them.

Thinking about census records, women’s “gainful employment” wasn’t recorded until 1860 and then in published reports women’s work was not tabulated separately.[1] It’s widely believed that women’s work was historically underreported by the government, and private industry.

For years now, as I do genealogy, I try to think more closely and inclusively about my women ancestors and not promulgate the patterns of male-centric genealogy.  But then I digressed.

My grandmother, Fannie Pooler Sammons, was a seamstress. She was married with five children when her husband died an early death in December of 1931. She was 37 years old when she was left a widow, to raise 4 sons and one daughter, ages 14 to 5. The 1930 census listed her as a dressmaker in a dress shop. That work would be required of her to take care of a family of six, on her own, during the Depression.

My father and some of his siblings often spoke of the difficulties the Depression presented to their family.  They moved frequently, the kids would follow a produce vendor hoping something would fall off the wagon/truck that they might retrieve and take home. At least two of the sons were temporarily placed in an orphanage although very few of those details were ever discussed.

The burden of earning a living must have been a constant struggle and enormous task for Fannie; the impact of the Depression must have been particularly onerous for a women led household – a widow with 5 children. It’s a lot to think about.


[1] Originally published in Historical Methods, Volume 32, Number 3, Pages 125-133, Summer 1999 republished with permission online at: https://usa.ipums.org/usa/volii/4_1860-70rev.shtml