A St. Patrick's Day Reflection--Heritage and Work

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When I was growing up, as far as anyone knew, my family's heritage was entirely English. With the advent of online, searchable Censuses and other genealogical records, however, I discovered that I also have some Irish heritage. So on St. Patrick's Day, I find myself reflecting on my heritage, and asking questions for which there will only be speculative answers. Many of these ultimately tie to work.

One of my great-great-grandmothers emigrated from County Cavan, Ireland, to Brooklyn, New York, in the late 1860s. She was single, wasn't even yet 20 years old, and she seems to have arrived several years before her parents. So she probably set off for America looking for work. She then married my great-great-grandfather, a Brooklyn cigarmaker. His father was a cigar maker from the East End of London who had at least three cigar maker sons plus a cigar maker son-in-law. All them, except one brother, emigrated to Brooklyn in 1859. Again, I can only speculate as to why, but work is likely at least part of the story. Perhaps the availability of cigar making work, or perhaps the ability of cigar making work to provide for better living conditions than in London's East End. My great-great-grandmother's younger brother also became a cigar maker, perhaps due to my great-great-grandfather. And we can only imagine the changes they witnessed as cigar making went from being a skilled craft done by hand to a machine-based, repetitive task.

As an aside, there is a more famous cigar maker who emigrated from London's East End to New York around this time--Samuel Gompers, president of Cigar Makers' International Union and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Before then, Gompers was president of the Manhattan local when it struck in 1877, and an article in the Brooklyn Eagle (November 9, 1877) describes how Gompers spoke to a mass meeting of Brooklyn cigar makers to raise support. Much to my surprise, the article indicates that my great-great-great-uncle was president of this Brooklyn local (No. 87 of the Cigar Makers' International Union)--or someone else with the same name, though I can't find other Brooklyn cigar makers with this name in the 1880 Census. So my great-great-great-uncle presumably met Gompers, and perhaps my great-great-grandfather and other relatives did, too.

My other Irish roots come from a different set of great-great-great-grandparents. In the 1850 Census they are living in Baltimore and are shown as being born in Ireland. Their two oldest children were also born in Ireland while their other four, including one of my great-great-grandfathers, were born in Maryland. Again, why did they emigrate and why to Baltimore? My great-great-great-grandfather was a millwright and Baltimore was probably a good place for that kind of work at that time. My great-great-grandfather, however, followed more in his father-in-law's footsteps and became a produce dealer in Brooklyn. Why? And why Brooklyn? The questions continue.

I'm unlikely to ever know how many of the answers pertain to work. But we know that in many cases, work plays a key role in many of these critical life events. And on a daily level, many of our ancestors undoubtedly worked hard to try to make a better life for their children. Just as we do today. In an era when we are bombarded by stories of changing work and changing technology, it's easy to lose sight of these fundamental commonalities of work across time, space, and culture. And someday perhaps my own descendants will ask "Why Minnesota?" And the answer will be a common one. For work.

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About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.