Facts Briefly Stated

You have to be a diehard believer in abbreviation to insist on reducing a common four-letter name by a single letter, but the men who were given the task of taking down page after page of census information in longhand sometimes seized on every available shortcut.

In 1860, the Lovewell farm in Clarke County, Iowa, was peopled by residents (And one resident-at-large) who are identified only by first initials and surnames.  Although many of us can very easily guess who T. Lovewell, N. Lovewell, and J. Lovewell were, other family researchers might have a bone to pick with an Assistant Marshal of Clarke County.  That same year in Virginia City, where Thomas Lovewell was actually hanging out, he is listed as “Thos. Lovewell,” which is also how his name often appears in contemporary newspapers.

Newspapermen also liked abbreviations.  Since part of their job involved rapidly slapping handset type into a form, one backwards-letter at a time, any letters that could be left out, were.  “Thos.,” “Wm.,” and “Rob’t” seem self-explanatory.  Finding “Jas.” on a census form or as part of the signature on a letter, might make a novice researcher scratch his head once or twice before realizing that it’s an abbreviation for “James.” I scratched my head a few times before deciding that George McC. Miller’s middle name must be “McCullough.”  At least the effort saved in the case of Miller’s middle name seems substantial.  Although it was a common practice, we must wonder just how many cases of writer’s cramp were avoided by writing “Jno.” instead of “John.”

I have sometimes debated whether a piece of information listed in the census is the actual answer given, or may be the census-taker’s characterization of it.  The idea first occurred to me when the occupation written next to the name of a twenty-two-year-old resident of Jewell County was “loafer.”  Was it really the man’s lighthearted response to the question, was it a shorthand version of, “I’m looking for work right now,” or was it what the local enumerator knew him to be?  After finding two or three more “loafers,” I began to wonder if it really could be something men made a living at back then.  Perhaps it was the name for a baker’s apprentice.  After all, my first real job was as a printer’s devil.  There was that case of a family researcher who was horrified to find her female ancestor’s occupation listed as “hooker,” only to learn that the lady toiled over a specialized machine in the textile industry.

Fortunately, I found an item in a turn-of-the-century newspaper remarking on “Strange Occupations Set Down by Enumerators,” which settled my “loafer” question.  The Washington correspondent for the New York Sun reported that some of the more colorful occupations listed in the twelfth census then being compiled were “idler,” “drunkard,” “crook,” “pickpocket,” “tramp,” “loafer,” “laid up,” and “hobo.”  A man of means was sometimes listed in the 1900 census as “gentleman,” or simply “rich,” while a German from Pennsylvania was branded a “villain.”  

One of the more peculiar entries for a housewife was “washing and wishing.”  The census-taker explained that the lady of the house took in washing, and wished that her husband would do more to support his family.  Another contender for the prize for most fanciful response might go to the enumerator who wrote down one man’s occupation as “musically inclined.”

Something many family historians wish the census could provide, is any clue that would let us know who was doing the talking.  In 1910 my grandfather was living in or near the town of Lovewell with his older brother and the brother’s wife.  One of the questions asked about each member of the household, was his or her relationship to the head of the family, in this case, my grandfather’s older brother.  Next to my grandfather’s name, instead of the expected response, is the word “servant.”  It probably says much more about their relationship than “brother” would have.  If only we knew who said it.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com