No matter what kind of research we do, just as soon as we move from the present to the distant past, we find ourselves tripping over words that seem to have been left there just to bedevil us.
Whether it’s the census ( i.e., ancestral occupations) or city directories (businesses and products), there’s always something we don’t understand that calls out for much more in-depth research. Being willing to take that extra step and do additional research that’s not directly related to genealogy is what makes casual researchers into serious researchers.
There’s a truism that relates to all kinds of research: the more you know about “stuff” in general, the more successful you’re likely to be when you’re searching for something. Bottom line: the more you know, the more you’re likely to discover.
For example, there’s a “Dr. Robert Liston” who appears regularly in late 19th century Albany city directories. He’s described as an “aurist”, a term you don’t hear much anymore in these parts. Here’s his business listing:
Even if you don’t know what an “aurist” actually did, you could ignore the word and move on. Or…you could do exactly as it says above and … “see page 24.”
A quick look at Liston’s full page ad informs us that he specializes in treating diseases of the ear. Now you know – at least broadly – what an aurist did.
Chances are, if you meet the word “aurist” again in a document or reference, you’ll remember the “diseases of the ear” connection.
Elsewhere in Albany directories, we find Mr. A. Van Allen Jr. at 24 Beaver Street. He sells foundry riddles. Chances are, the term “foundry riddles” rarely comes up in your day-to-day conversation, right? And I’m guessing the market for children’s jokes, puns and riddles about foundries is probably non-existent, wouldn’t you agree?
While his colored ad isn’t particularly informative, it doesn’t take much to learn from dictionary sources that “riddles” are coarse sieves used in foundry work to put sand on iron castings.
But then the fun begins. Imagine finding that your guy was described in the same way as William Barnet in the 1899 Albany directory:
The common usage of the word “shoddy” implies things made with inferior materials or with poor quality workmanship. In fact, that's the definition that appears when you look up the word in the two dictionary references ("A To Zax" and "What Did They Mean By That?") that I mentioned in the last post. But, of course, city directory publishers never passed judgment on the quality of the products their advertisers made, so it must be something else.
This is where it’s helpful to have a broad general knowledge of the various industrial monographs published during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the Census and other sources. The Abstract of the 1914 Census of Manufactures, published by the Department of Commerce - Bureau of the Census tells us that the term means something else indeed.
In its review of the textile industries in the United States, it defines “shoddy” this way:
"Shoddy" is a generic term that is applied to recovered wool or cotton fiber, that is, the fiber obtained by passing rags, clippings, yarns, or waste through machines which reduce them to the condition of clean fiber ready for mixing with new material for spinning into yarn.
So, being a “shoddy manufacturer” isn’t so bad after all. Just don’t show Aunt Esther the city directory ad without explanation; she’d be mortified to learn that her great-grandfather was once described as a “shoddy manufacturer”, when all along she thought he was a woolen trade magnate producing goods of the highest quality...
Another 1899 directory listing looks like this:
Okay, so just what is a “shook”? Perhaps their larger ad on page 663 will offer some helpful hints. Let’s see:
There’s that word “shooks” - stuck in between “hardwood cases” and “egg carriers.” At best, we know that it’s some kind of wooden box, but if we want to move beyond that, we’ll need some more information from an additional source.
Luckily, there’s a story in the New York Times of 21 July 1901 that pops up in a Google search of the term “shook.”
Suddenly it all comes clear.
The story is headed: The Fruit Box Shook Trade: Exports From Bangor Will Be Greater Than Ever Before. Now we’re getting somewhere. Describing the 4,000,000 boxes that will be shipped to mainland Italy and Sicily that year, the story helpfully explains just what a “shook” is:
Some folks will say, “But this isn’t genealogical research!”
My reply is simple: maybe not on the surface, but we old-timers discovered many long years ago that learning what words mean in their historical context and knowing how and where to find obscure information about occupations, industries, and all kinds of similar minutiae is exactly the foundation upon which really good genealogy (and really good historical research in general) rests.
What I said near the top of this post bears repeating:
The more you know, the more you’re likely to discover.