Got a Loafer in Your Tree?

1870census
1870 US Census
While researching my great-grandfather Jesse Archer, I found the 1870 Federal Census and got a bit of a giggle at his occupation that was listed as “loafer”.  I mean, I’ve read about several silly occupations on the censuses but I’d never come across “loafer” so it brought up a bit of a mystery for me and brought debate between friends and relatives but nobody was quite sure.

My relative Suzanne thought perhaps it was a baker, referring to the loaves of bread.  Another, thought perhaps a person working on a farm, rolling bales of hay, which could have made sense because he was a farmer nearly all his life.  Personally, I thought it meant more like our modern meaning – a slacker.  However, as Suzanne pointed out, how does a slacker have personal property in 1870 in the amount of $1000?  That was a lot of value then!  (I’ll discuss that below later….)

loafer
21 Sep 1900 – The Daily Star
So I reached out to several genealogy bloggers & professionals to ask if they had come across this term or if they had any idea what it could mean.  I’d searched many a night on my own and found nothing revealing.  And then, Genealogy Jen of Repurposed Genealogy came to the rescue and sent me an interesting link to a 1900 news article about strange occupations and loafer was listed there with a great explanation about how loafer was an idle person – an term used for those out of work 12 months or more.

Jen also said in her email that a couple of the articles she read used the “loafer” term for alcoholics and “it was a widespread issue after the devastation of the Civil War” while pointing out that many soldiers who came home were never the same afterwards.  Jesse was discharged from Union forces in 1865 so this most certainly could apply to Jesse’s  case … his extensive obituary describes his bullet wounds and the saber wound he suffered in his shoulder that reportedly plagued him the rest of his life.

As his form’s lowered in the ground
With bullet marks and saber wound

So I don’t think it would be a far stretch of the imagination to think that perhaps, if even for a little bit, that he perhaps found a return to civilian life difficult and didn’t work for awhile… maybe even thereby earning the “loafer” designation.

The question still lingers about how he came to have the $1100 personal estate listed if he was loafing about and not working for a year.  One thing I considered was that the 1870 census date was August 21.  That was also the date of Jesse’s marriage to Jacob Wickham’s sister Nancy Jane, as I also recently wrote about.  I thought perhaps this could have been a dowry amount but as Suzanne pointed out, dowries weren’t really being done then like before.  So then that led to a question of possible inheritance…. but the date of his father’s death is completely unknown and only speculative at best since we haven’t been able to locate his grave yet or even a death record notation anywhere.

So while the money mystery continues, I feel that thanks to Jen’s help and the dialogue with Suzanne, I’ve been able to answer the loafer occupational question.  As Jen points out in closing, being designated a loafer doesn’t mean he was a good for nothing but to remember that everyone has a story and there is always some reasoning to explain these questions we come across as we research their (and our) history.  So I try to remember that this is just a snapshot of a moment in his life, a mere page from his story.

 

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