Image courtesy of the always fascinating Shorpy.com
Old forms are fascinating things. Once, about ten years ago, my father-in-law uncovered a meticulously kept scorecard from one of my brother-in-law's high school baseball games, and with it, he was able to recreate, nearly pitch-by-pitch, an event that had happened a long time ago. Census forms do the same thing: read them carefully, and you feel whole neighborhoods come back to life.
The older the census, the sketchier the details. The 1820 US census is little more than the name of the head of household, and a series of tally marks indicating the number of men, women and children living under his roof. There are tantalizing bits of information -- the Milliman family is listed as living just a stone's throw from the Cowderys, which makes me wonder if my great-great grandmother Vesta Milliman might have known a young man by the name of Oliver -- but it is impossible trying to build something solid out of this data alone. What you construct is shoddy and unreliable, like a log cabin built out of toothpicks: All the chinking spackle in the world can't cover the fact that you're lacking in essential raw materials.
By 1860, the report included the names of every person living in a household, their ages, birthplace, marital status, occupations, citizenship, parentage, literacy level, and the wonderful catch-all category, "Whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict." In the 1930 report, there's a box to indicate whether the houshold owned its own radio set (my great-grandfather Alfred McMurray, living at 624 East Thompson Street, North Tonawanda, did not own a radio, putting him in a slight minority on his block). This is the kind of information that helps bring life to those voices out of the dust.
The "occupation" column is one of my favorites. Scrolling down the East Thompson Street list, there are several "laborers," working everywhere from "The Sled Factory" to "Odd Jobs." There is a typist at the telegraph office, and a hardware store salesman, a silk factory supervisor and a city policeman, a contractor and grocery store saleslady, a carpenter and an insurance salesman, a machinist and a chauffeur and the piano factory timekeeper, all on one block of one street in a little town in upstate New York, all sorts of occupations, mostly blue collar occupations. All sorts of ways to make a living.
No one, not on East Thompson, not in the Avenues, not anywhere that I have ever found on any of these old forms, works as a "technician." There aren't any custodial engineers, either, though I did run across a man whose job was "sweeps up the movie theater." And while I've come across "garbagemen" in the census lists, I've yet to see a "waste removal engineer."
We live in the age of the Glorified Job Title. Meeting with some school board candidates on Saturday, I mentioned that their campaigns should target non-faculty employees, since most of the classroom teachers live outside of our district boundaries, and nearly all of the custodians, lunch ladies and teacher's aides live within the district. "Don't call them that!" an aghast candidate interrupted me. "They're paraprofessionals! That shut me up for the rest of the meeting.
This is social alchemy, using fancy words to turn the dross of emptying trash cans and slinging mystery meat and washing glue out of kindergartners' hair into something great and golden. It doesn't work. Waste removal engineers are still hauling off other people's refuse. Pool service technicians are still toting chlorine and pulling dead frogs out of skimmers. Laborers are still laboring, sales ladies are still selling, typists are still typing, even if now they're called "data entry specialists."
We do this because we're ashamed of dirty work. It's necessary work -- as choleric and disgusting as Victorian London was, it would have been far, far worse without the pure-finders and bone-pickers, who scavenged the streets for salable refuse, from dog excrement (used in the tanning process) to rags, bones, and scraps of wood and metal -- but it's demeaning work. Give it a new name, preferably something that sounds vague and impressive and somehow implies that a certain amount of education was required to qualify for the position, and everyone feels better.
Dignity doesn't come from titles. Our ancestors seemed to understand that.