“Without Occupation”

While in quarantine/isolation, I’ve been working on genealogy research, specifically the Feathers of West Virginia. My 2x great grandmother was Ida Frances Feathers, and I’ve hit a genealogical “brick wall” with her father, George W. Feathers

In genealogy, when you can’t go up, i.e., can’t locate George W.’s father, you go sideways. This means I’ve begun searching not just my direct line — Ida, her father George and mother Catharine — but also Ida’s sisters and brothers and their families.**

Quite often this type of research leads to discoveries that break through that wall.

And that’s why I began tracing Phoebe “Phebe” Feathers Cullers.

Phebe, Susan, and George Washington Feathers — Ida’s siblings — all married Cullers (frequently misspelled as Colors, also Cullen, Culler, Color). Phebe and Susan’s husbands were probably brothers, although I’ve not gotten that deep into their family’s and hope I don’t have to.

From what I can tell, George Washington’s wife was his sister Susan’s daughter, which means he was her uncle despite being only four years older.

Yes, that makes me cringe. (A small disclaimer here — I could be wrong. There were many Cullers in the area, and many men with the first and middle names of George and Washington.)

Still today I’m not focusing on overly close familial connections in this post except to say that though West Virginia has a reputation for inbreeding, this is the first time I’ve come across a fact that actually made me make a face.

Mostly, I’ve found cases of siblings of one family marrying siblings of another, thereby making their children what my Dad called “double first cousins.”

That’s the genetic equivalent of a half-sibling.

But back to the subject of this post, which is the 1880 census for the Phebe and Henry Cullers household in Lost River (love that name), Hardy County, West Virginia.

Here’s what it says:

Color, Henry, White, Male, 55, married, farmer, can’t read, can’t write, born Virginia, both parents born Virginia
Color, Phoebia, White, Female, 52, wife, married, keeping house, can’t read, can’t write, born Virginia, both parents born Virginia
Color, Jacob, White, Male, 26, son, single, works on farm, 4 months unemployed, born Virginia, both parents born Virginia
Color, Morgan, White, Male, 16, son, single, works on farm, 5 months unemployed, attended school in last year, born West Virginia,* parents born Virginia
Color, Martha, White, Female, 18, daughter, single, without occupation (bf mine), born West Virginia,* both parents born Virginia
Color, Elizabeth, White, Female, 15, daughter, single, without occupation (bf mine), attended school in last year, born West Virginia,* both parents born Virginia
Color, Susan, White, Female, 9, daughter, attended school in last year, born West Virginia,* both parents born Virginia
Louis, Mordica, White, Male, 23, servant, can’t read, can’t write, born Virginia, both parents born Virginia

So, here we have a family with six children. The head of the family (which is, of course, the elder man, Henry) is a farmer. His wife is listed as “keeping house.” The male children, Jacob and Morgan are listed as “works on farm” even though they were unemployed for four and five months of the year, respectively.

The servant, Mordica, is also male, so it’s a pretty safe bet he also works on the farm.

Now we turn to the females.
The youngest Susan, is just nine, so it’s unsurprising there’s nothing listed for her occupation, although she does attend school. But the two older females, Martha (18) and Elizabeth (15), are specifically listed as “without occupation,” although Elizabeth has attended school in the last year. You’ll notice Martha, at eighteen, is older than Morgan who is listed as working on a farm (and attending school), but she still has no “occupation.”

At least, that’s what the census says.

Here’s my question: Do you seriously believe Martha and Elizabeth had no occupation? Or is it possible, just maybe, that the work they did at home and on the farm was simply unrecognized as an occupation because it wasn’t done by a man?

Think about it for a minute. I’ll wait.

Fortuitously, I was able to find an article detailing the daily lives of women in West Virginia during this time period on the West Virginia archives website.

Big surprise. The women were not “unoccupied.”

Information direct from one woman’s diaries lists these activities on an average day:


” … the mother or one of the daughters at home regularly cleaned the “far room”, the lower room, diningroom and sitting room. Rebecca and Sade appeared to do most of the chores in the home. When school was out, Fan and Virginia helped in this work. Rebecca noted that either individually or with one of her sisters she worked at the following household tasks: cleaning and straightening the house, washing clothes and blankets, ironing, sewing shirts and dresses and cooking which included baking cakes and salt-rising bread and making taffy.”

Another diarist recorded:

“… women did most of their work in the home with few references to outdoor tasks recorded in the diaries. Certain chores like washing, ironing, cleaning and sewing were usually done weekly. Sarah baked and churned frequently. Among the unusual homemaking chores were browning or roasting coffee, making yeast, and boiling hominy.

Grains for cornmeal and flour were raised on the farm. The farm produced its own meat and the family regularly butchered, hung meat, and salted it. Sarah wrote of preserving yellow tomatoes, drying corn, making peach butter, and burying cabbage and turnips in the root cellar. Purchased food items included coffee, fish, sugar, lemon and nutmeg.

Money appeared to be in short supply in the McKown family. The diaries’ early entries tell of selling eggs and butter. The backs of some of the diaries record the amount of butter and eggs sold during a particular year. Although the income from these sales was not great, the money helped to make life easier for the family. Produce and items not available on the farm were often acquired by bartering or trading one item for another. For example, Sarah wrote that she sometimes paid to have her weekly washing done in 1869 with cornmeal, vegetables, lard, etc., if she did not have the fifty cents. In 1888, she noted that a son had traded cornmeal for sugar at the local store.”

“Without occupation,” indeed.

*Note: Morgan, Martha, Elizabeth and Susan were all born in West Virgina, while Jacob was not. This is not because the family moved, it’s because West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1861 during the Civil War. In my research, making this distinction on the census is somewhat unusual. Frequently, those who lived in West Virginia after the war just say they were born in West Virginia, even if it was technically Virginia at the time. Since Hardy County is on the border of Virginia, I wonder if the Cullers were making a point that they were proud Virginians or proud West Virginians. Or maybe they were making no point at all, but the families consistently reported birth locations this way.

**I wrote two earlier blog posts on Ida’s brother Cornelius and his wife, Sarah Jane Daugherty Feathers Scott.

4 thoughts on ““Without Occupation”

  1. The implication of the phrase being that they sat about being decorative, I suppose. I wonder why it is that keeping the poultry yard, dairying, growing vegetables, cooking meals, cleaning, butchering, preserving food, mending and making clothes, baking and doing the laundry are regarded as ‘background noise’, whilst the labour the men did is somehow more real. Especially since the sale of her butter and eggs and surplus vegetables would have generated a steady and necessary income too.

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