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World of Work (1.1)


“Work” by Ford Madox Brown. Painted during 1852-1865. Like many Pre-Raphaelite artists, “Work” was intended as a powerful critique of the British class system. [Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, UK]

The World of Work

The decennial U.S. Census has been an important source for information on many topics. Though the format of each census changes, 19th century versions are useful for understanding ethnicity, marital status, birth rates, occupation, home ownership, etc. What you may not know is that the census for 1890 — potentially one of the most important for an especially volatile period in U.S. history, documenting the end of “the frontier” — burned in 1921 before it could be opened for public access. Anyone doing on-line genealogical work was hampered by that gaping hole in the chain of evidence.

A list of the inquiries made in the 1890 U.S. Census

Realizing that city directories could be a useful tool, a massive effort was put into scanning them in OCR format and posting them on pay sites like ancestry.com. Beginning with major urban areas, like Chicago, for example, and extending outward from 1890, the process continues and has included smaller and smaller communities, even to the potential scale of a place like Agincourt. So it’s easy to imagine the 1915 volume of “Needle & Haystack’s Directory”. And how significant it could be in telling the story.

It may surprise that directories like this existed long before there were telephones; their purpose was quite different. Directories were vital tools for finding people in cities of all sizes, and included both alphabetical and classified sections. Advertising space was sold to underwrite their cost and make each annual volume (not every town has one for every year) affordable for most residents. I’ve found them particularly helpful in documenting the presence of building professionals, architects, masons, carpenters, etc. The title page and accompanying map for the N&H 1915 directory may become part of the proposed Agincourt book currently underway.


Among the things I find most useful is the classified listing. Not only does it identify businesses and professions — butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and the like — but it also enables us to calculate how many of those are likely on a per capita basis. How many residents, for example, are required to support an architect? — given that the profession was unregulated and virtually anyone could use the title. How large a community is necessary to justify a public library? A blacksmith? A department store? You get the idea. So it is with great interest when images like this appear at auction sites.
I wasn’t able to acquire this photo (it’s not a postcard) but I can tell you it is unidentified by name, location, or date, though we can make an educated guess. Certainly a town of very modest size warranted boot and shoe repair, especially repair. But there is additional information that can be gleaned from it: minimum signage [see the ice cream?], brick sidewalks, shop floors of varying levels, hybrid construction (cast iron and masonry), ceilings of 12-14 feet in height. And then there is that young man on the right. A budding cobbler waiting to take over the family business?

Hradek’s Shoe Repair had already become part of the narrative before this image came along, a shop on South Broad Street on the “wrong” side of town. Perhaps this is it.

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