Occupational Coding In the 1850 Public Use Microdata Sample 1

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The 1850 census was the first to ask respondents their occupation. Unlike later censuses, it offered few instructions to enumerators regarding occupations. Marshals were simply instructed to note the occupation of each white and free black male over fifteen years of age, recording "the specific profession, occupation or trade which the said person is known and reputed to follow in the place where he resides." Clergymen were to be distinguished by denomination. Individuals performing more than one job were to be identified only by their primary occupation. Women's occupations not reported.

The limited instructions provided by the Census Office produced inconsistent and often vague responses. Marshals sometimes listed an industry without an occupation (e.g., "Cotton mill"), or an occupation without an industry (e.g., "Molder"). In addition, other information such as health ("dead of cholera"), place of residence ("lives in a cave") or relationship status ("widow of Israel B Sheldon") was sometimes entered in the occupation field. Occupations were most frequently difficult to identify when they had been misspelled or partially spelled ("filed"; "mider"). Because of these irregularities, classifying and coding occupations proved challenging.

Our method of coding occupations consisted of three main stages: data entry, sorting, and coding. In the data entry stage, operators recorded most occupations exactly as they were reported by the census marshals, including spelling errors or abbreviations. Some common occupations, such as servants, were abbreviated. These titles were then copied into a separate file and sorted alphabetically. Finally, each title was assigned a numeric code according to the 1880 and 1950 Census classification systems.

1880 Occupational Classification.

The Census Office did not prepare a true classification scheme for the 1850 census. Instead, it provided an alphabetical list of the number of men performing 324 occupations, arranging the occupations roughly by industry. Since the 1850 census lacked a practical classification of its own, we coded occupations according to the 1880 census classification. In addition, each response was assigned a code in the 1950 census occupational classification. In many cases, coding an occupation according to the standards employed by the 1880 Census Office in tabulating returns was difficult. No detailed instructions remain and many of the enumerated responses are vague or incomplete. Consequently, we devised a number of procedures to ensure consistent coding. These procedures were intended to replicate those used in classifying occupations in the 1880 Public Use Microdata Sample. Four general rules covered many of the difficult coding problems.

Rule 1. In cases where more than one occupation was listed we coded according to the first occupation. However, when the first occupation was a non-occupational response (e.g., "keeping house") and the second gave an actual occupation, we coded according to the second occupation.

Rule 2. When the response listed both an occupation and an industry, we gave preference to the industry over the occupation if that industry was explicitly noted in the 1880 classification. The rationale for this procedure is the "industrial" classification system used by the 1880 Census Office which placed greater importance on locating persons within sectors of the economy than in relating their specific tasks. Thus, for example, the response "Blacksmith on railroad" was coded as "Employee on railroad" rather than as "Blacksmith."

Rule 3. If the occupation response gave only a place of employment or an industry within the manufacturing sector (e.g., "Iron mill"), then we coded the occupation at the employee level. If the response contained only a type of store (e.g., "Dry goods store" or "Grocery"), we coded the man as a trader and dealer in that line of trade. If the response referred to a "Shop," it was coded among the manufacturing occupations; if it referred to a "Store," it was coded within trade and transportation.

Rule 4. In our previous work classifying occupations for the 1880 Public Use Microdata Sample, comparisons with the published 1880 returns sometimes revealed large discrepancies. These differences suggested that certain responses be reclassified to approximate as closely as possible the 1880 Census Office procedures. We used this information to classify 1850 occupations as well. This procedure was particularly helpful in dealing with agricultural laborers and clerks.

1880 Occupation Modifications

001 Agricultural Laborers. The nineteenth century Census Office regularly complained about the confusion of agricultural and common laborers, specifically, the undercount of farm laborers. We suspect that the Census Office often inferred agricultural laborer status from the characteristics of the household or locality. Occupational classification in the Public Use Microdata Sample was carried out using the occupation field in isolation from other characteristics. After initial classification, we recoded men in "Laborers (not specified)" into "Agricultural Laborers" when they resided in a household headed by a farmer.

023, 065 Clerks. Comparisons of 1880 Public Use Microdata Sample data with the published 1880 tabulations revealed that the Census Office regularly interpreted the response "Clerk" to mean "Clerks in stores," rather than "Clerks and copyists (not otherwise described)." We coded clerks accordingly in 1850. The residual category "Clerks and copyists (not otherwise described)" now contains men returned as clerks who worked in a specified setting not described in other clerk categories.

Residual Categories. We coded more men within the "other" groupings than did the 1880 tabulators. We had no guidance as to whom the 1880 Census Office put in these categories. Some of the distinct groups and general rules of classification we followed are:

089-Porters and Laborers in Stores and Warehouses. Includes the numerically significant group of stevedores and longshoremen. Anyone reported as "Works in [some type of store]" was also classified here.

172-Employees in Manufacturing Establish-ments (not specified). Men reporting a manufacturing occupation that suggested employee status but did not include reference to a mill or factory (e.g., "Works in lamp shop," and "Pressman").

204-Mill and Factory Operatives (not specified). Men whose title suggested employee or operative status while also mentioning a mill or factory workplace. Some of the titles include "Mill hand," "In pencil factory," and "Steam mill."

210-Officials of Manufacturing and Mining Companies. Includes the following terms in the title in combination with some reference to manufacturing: keeps, owner, proprietor, manager, running, superintendent, president, and treasurer.

265-Others in Manufacturing, Mechanical, and Mining Industries. Titles that suggest manufacturing occupations but that give no intimation of the man's status (employee, owner, etc.). Included here are many men described simply as "makers" of certain items not specified among the other occupational categories.

266-Employed, Occupation Unspecified. A category we added for the Public Use Microdata Sample. Men coded here gave a response that clearly indicated they were employed, but there was no way to determine even in which economic sector to place them. Such men are gainfully employed.

We differentiated among the non-occupational responses we encountered in the data and coded them into a number of categories above the numeric range of legitimate occupational responses (301-310). Users interested only in gainfully employed men should exclude these responses. Many of the non-occupational responses describe the condition of adolescents and the elderly. We grouped the responses to maximize their usefulness to researchers.

1950 Occupational Classification.

We coded occupations into the 1950 Census Bureau occupational classification in addition to the 1880 scheme. The 1950 classification was carried out in a similar manner to the 1880 coding (steps 1 and 3 detailed above). In coding into the 1950 system we did not favor industry as we did for 1880. The procedure for 1950 coding also differed because we did not have published Census Office statistics against which to compare our figures. Classification was simplified greatly by a published 1950 Index of Occupations and Industries which the Bureau used for its own tabulations. The vast majority of 1880 occupations were contained in this index, which supplied the appropriate 1950 code for particular job titles, sometimes providing different codes for the same occupational title where the industry differed. The status of certain occupations may have changed since 1880 with respect to the particular occupational grouping in which it belongs (e.g., "Craftsmen" or "Operative"), but we adhered strictly to the letter and logic of the 1950 Index. We leave it to the individual researcher to resolve such issues.

Some occupations proved difficult to code because of ambiguity, lack of the necessary industry information, or because the particular occupation disappeared-or the title fell out of usage-between 1850 and 1950. If no appropriate category suggested itself, we classified the occupation within one of the residual categories such as "Operatives and kindred workers (not elsewhere classified)." The following occupations proved problematic or contain subgroups that bear pointing out:

300-Agents (not elsewhere classified). If the title suggested a man was an agent in retail, as opposed to wholesale or manufacturing, then he was coded in "Salesmen and sales clerks (not elsewhere classified)."

564-Painters, Construction, and Maintenance. There are two categories of painters in 1950, the other being "Painters, except construction or maintenance" (670). We used the construction category as the default code. Men listed as "Painter" or "House painter" were coded in construction painting.

594-Craftsmen and Kindred Workers (not elsewhere classified). This includes men returned as coopers, brewers, and wagonwrights, among others.

625-Bus Drivers. Includes bus, coach and stage drivers. A man returned as a "Coachman" was coded in "Private household workers (not elsewhere classified)," code 720.

82-Taxicab drivers and chauffeurs. Includes carriage and hack drivers.

683-Truck and Tractor Drivers. Includes cartmen, expressmen, and men listed only as"driver." We also classified "teamsters" here, rather than coding them in the 1950 category, "Teamsters." This was the only point where we consciously broke from the 1950 occupational index. Our rationale was that teamsters in 1950 were an insignificant and marginal occupation classified in the larger grouping "Laborers, Except Farm and Mine." Teamsters in 1880 were a mainstream occupation performing the function of 1950 truck drivers. With other occupations we did not let the mechanization or change of method or setting change their classification.

690-Operatives and Kindred Workers (not elsewhere classified). A large residual category containing harnessmakers, tanners, wagon makers, cigar makers, and men reported as "working" in a mill or ship.

970-Laborers (not elsewhere classified). Subject to the same logical recoding as the 1880 laborer category whereby men in households headed by a farmer were recoded as "Farm laborers, wage workers." The laborer category contains men identified as "Hostler."

975-Employed, Occupation Unspecified. A category we added for the Public Use Microdata Sample. Men coded here gave a response that clearly indicated they were employed, but there was no way to determine even in which economic sector to place them. Such men were gainfully employed.

Non-occupational responses were grouped into categories and given codes above the range of legitimate 1950 occupational responses (codes 981-990)


  1. "Occupational Coding," Public Use Microdata Sample of the 1850 United States Census of Population: User's Guide and Technical Documentation. Minneapolis: Social History Research Laboratory, 1995, pp. 26-29.

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