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 his name in a document (marriage certificate, death certificate, church book, etc. – although in some church books, it may be shortly after). For example, a certificate might read “The baker Johann Schmidt, born February 5, 1880…”, with baker (Bäcker) preceding the name of the person mentioned.  In the marriage certificate below, we can see the name Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt (beginning on the second line). If we look at the word before the name Friedrich (last word, top line), we see the occupation Schuhmachermeister, meaning that Friedrich was a master shoemaker.

This leads us to the levels of occupations, which were also important for our ancestors. 

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, Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt 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. For an extensive list, Edna Bentz’ book If I Can, You Can Decipher German Records offers several pages of German occupations of the past, as well as a sample of how the occupation would have looked in the old handwriting (along with its English translation). 

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

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

  1. James Sternitzky says:

    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. Ted B. Wendeln says:

    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?

    • kapschober says:

      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.

      • Ted B Wendeln says:

        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. Vanessa Bentley-Moeschen says:

    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.

    • kapschober says:

      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.

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