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What Did You Do For a Living, Ancestor?: Common Occupations in German Genealogy

“What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask someone upon meeting. Our occupation defines us, showcasing our interests and illustrating how we spend our time. And just as this is true in the twenty-first century, so too was it for our ancestors (although they perhaps had less choice in the matter than we do – there likely weren’t many Uber drivers back then). 

My ancestor was a “Pfarrer” (priest/pastor)

But where do you find your ancestor’s occupation? Luckily for you, it’s not too difficult. The occupation of your ancestor is almost always right before the name on a vital record, and either shortly before or after the name on a church record (I tend to see more after). For example, a vital record certificate might read “The baker Johann Schmidt…”, with baker (Bäcker) preceding the name of the person mentioned, whereas a church record might read “Johann Schmidt, baker…”.  

What if an occupation looks like a really long word? This might mean there was an occupation level written after the occupation itself. 

Occupation levels included:

“Lehrling” – apprentice

“Geselle” – journeyman (apprenticeship complete)

“Meister” – master

These levels, if listed, always follow the name of the occupation. For example, “Schuhmachermeister” is a person who is a master shoemaker. In his earlier life, that person was likely a Schuhmachergeselle, or journeyman shoemaker.

So what occupations were common in the past? Below, find a list of the most common occupations (in my translating experience) for men and women in German genealogy. And if you need more help, my book The Magic of German Church Records also includes an extensive list of occupations – with the handwritten word included!

Common Occupations for Men:

Arbeiter worker, laborer
Bauer farmer
Gastwirt (Gastwirth)/Wirt innkeeper
________händler __________ dealer/trader/merchant
Maurer bricklayer
Metzger butcher
Müller miller
Schmied blacksmith
Schneider tailor
Schreiner cabinet maker, joiner, carpenter
Schuhmacher shoemaker, cobbler
Tagelöhner day laborer
Tischler cabinet maker, furniture maker, carpenter
Tuchmacher cloth maker
Weber weaver

Common Occupations for Women:

Dienstmädchen maid, servant girl
Dienerin servant (female)
gewerblos/ohne Gewerb no occupation
Hebamme midwife
Krankenschwester nurse
Näherin seamstress

What occupation did your ancestor have? Let us know in the comments!

25 Responses

  1. I have been translating my family church and civil record for around 20 years. The records go back about 500 years in Silesia. Many of the villagers moved to Breslau in the 1800s and their first jobs were Haushälters when the reached the big city. From there, a step up was a job as a Kutschner (carriage cab driver). I strurggled for years with the translation of Haushälter. I thought it was a kind of butler (based on a German translation of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. But now I think it was an old word for a janitor.
    I love your book and newsletters.
    Best regards and congratulations on your book.

  2. In what type of record would I find an ancestor listed as a Lehrling? The Orttsippenbuch I have only lists him as a son. Since he didn’t marry until he came to America there is no other listing. He was from a small village near Freiburg and had apprenticed as an Apotheker before come here. I assume he apprenticed in Freiburg. What city record should I look for?

    1. I’ve seen instances of “Lehrling” in both church books and vital records, but they would need to be from the time he was an apprentice, so likely when he was younger and then only for a period of a few years. There are also guild books, but I am not sure if they would have those for Apotheker.

      1. Thank you. I have a friend who lives near Freiburg who is doing some research for me. I also plan to spend time there next year. When he settled in West central Ohio in 1844 he was the village medical doctor. All of the history books from the late 19th century day that he began his studies at the age of eleven and study medicine at the University of Freiburg. There are no records of a Johann Paulus Schmieder at Freiburg or any other university. He was the son of weavers and they weren’t attending German universities in the early 19th century.

        Thank you again for your help,

        Ted B Wendeln

  3. We just found out from a researcher that our 4th great grandfather was a “master painter.” How does a painter fair in society in Germany in early 1800’s? His son became a painter as well.

    1. That’s an interesting occupation! I am no expert on that, but I would think it would be like any trade. There were also guilds in some cities to support artists and workers.

  4. A family letter tells of Church records state Karl Bremicker’s family were in the business of making woven decorative items that are sewn onto clothing. I have no idea who the names are other then the last name this was Ronsdorf, Germany Around 1875 in that area. An ideas?

    1. I haven’t heard of that occupation, Michelle, but sounds like an interesting one! If you have any German letters that you would like translated for more clues, feel free to send it my way.

      1. That would be great we have a Article i guess written about him. We were told it was in some old style fancy German dialect not regular. Karl Charles Bremicker who in american became a revered and even wrote a book about his father in law yet not once in any record are the names of his parents mentioned. If you think you can translate it I can email it. https://www.ancestry.com/mediaui-viewer/collection/1030/tree/168645391/person/292193126441/media/58413c81-6bca-477d-b4be-9fbaf2d04142?_phsrc=EDp3373&usePUBJs=true is a link not sure you can see it.

  5. From the Pfälzer Weinstraße, a Gastwirth/Winzer and another a Küfer/Winzer. The son of the latter, also a Küfer, brought his skills to St. Louis where he made barrels for the brewery that later became Anheuser-Busch.

    1. Oh wow, that’s cool that he worked for the brewery that became Anheuser-Busch! As a St. Louisan, that’s fun to hear!

  6. Records for East Prussia are few and far between, but I was lucky and was able to find and purchase parish records 1822-1830 which covered the area I was searching in. Occupations listed were habmeister (university teacher) and abdecker (skinner, roof uncoverer) – Thode definition, or dealer in animal cadavers – Reimer et al definition . My grandfather emigrated in 1888 and was listed as shoemaker.

    1. What area of East Prussia? I am looking for Records from Fleming and Wonneberg both, Kr. Röβel and Catholic Parish records from Passenheim, Kr. Ortelsburg.

  7. Two of my ancestors, one in West Prussia and one in Westphalia, are listed as Schulze in the church records. My understanding is that they were farmers but with extra land and their original functions were to collect taxes and to provide some local men if an army was needed. Later their jobs were less related to the king and more to just organizing the day to day affairs of the residents of the area.

    Does this sound correct? Has anyone else come across this term? I think that the word Vogt was used in some areas.

  8. 20 years of research and I’ve never found an original German record for my Grandfather! He came to US in 1883 at the age of 17 and he was already a decorator of fine china. He plied this trade in the potteries of Trenton, New Jersey for his whole life (died in 1942). Would this occupation be listed in a general category of painter in German records?

  9. My great grandfather , Johann Gerhard Heinrich Schnieder, from Village of Wallen, Hannover, Germany was an illlegitimate
    child (born in 1844). He came to America by himself and it was said that he worked in the Bogad (?).
    What does this mean?

    1. Hi Gayla! Hm, that’s not a German word that I know of. I’m wondering if it was transcribed incorrectly?

  10. My Buchstaver family (1700) needs a clearer definition of our name. I know enough German to get in trouble, so I know it has book in the first part; however, “staver” is not clear to me. I have seen it as a book maker and I saw another definition of a writer. Could you move me in the right direction. Thank you.

  11. One of my Polish Prussian ancestors lived briefly on a landed estate (Rittergut) in 1880s West Prussia. While living there, he was identified as a Knecht, which I believe suggests he was a servant of some kind e.g., a farmhand working for the lord on the estate. What intrigues me is that was there living two counties away from ‘home’ about the time he would have completed his compulsory military service, including the 2 years in the reserves. My ancestors on other family branches in Russian Poland identified by the equivalent Polish term seemingly were not necessarily domestic servants but rather in government service (e.g., one line lived on the middle of nowhere government forest settlements with one family, and at the height of their ‘careers’ were identified as forest guards, but on the front and back end identified as ‘servants’; another was almost certainly a conscript brought to Warsaw in a time of peace).

    Can you provide any more background on the occupational term Knecht? I suspect that my Knecht ancestor was loaned out by the military to work on the estate because there was no war at the time, and/or fell in love while serving/training in the area and went to work there (as a domestic servant/farmhand) after completing his military obligation. He, his wife and children moved less than 5 years of marriage to his birthplace (also in West Prussia) before emigrating.

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