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What’s in a Name? Intern reflection by Ashley White

Ashley has become all too familiar with this sight- a page from the 1900 census.

I have spent all of my life in Bloomington so I have memories of school field trips to the museum. I also have fond memories of going to the Evergreen Cemetery Walk, which has become a tradition that my parents and I go to every year. I am currently a senior at Illinois State University, and am set to graduate in December 2014 with my degree in geography. This summer I am an intern in Digital Humanities and the project that I am working on involves going through pages and pages of census data from the different townships in McLean County to see who came to the county and where they came from. I have been looking at the people in the county during the time of the 1870 and 1900 censuses.

Early on in my internship I began noticing interesting items on the censuses. While many occupations are familiar even today (photographer, dressmaker, tayloress, student), there were plenty of unusual occupations that made me investigate further into the occupation.One example of this was an “edge tool maker." If you are like me you are most likely scratching your head trying to figure out what that possibly could be. I found out that the title means that they were a master of knives, scythes, and other cutting tools. Other examples of unusual occupations include “local dealer," “works on carriage," “works out," or “manufacturer." Possibly the best occupation title that I have come across was a woman who said that she was a “lady of leisure."

Notable Finds

In addition to the different job titles I was able to locate some of the county's more popular residents of the time. I was able to find Jesse Fell and Richard Edwards, president of ISNU at the time, on the same page of the 1870 census for Normal. I was able to locate the Funk family in Funk's Grove.

Then I stumbled upon some people of the county that are not as known, like Elizabeth Thomas. At the time of the 1870 census she was 104 years old and lived in Danvers. She was originally from Germany, and had listed her occupation as “knitting." I find it amazing that in 1870 she was 104! What had she lived through? What had she witnessed? In the census it appears that she was living with family of some sort, but what relation were they to her?

There was also John Keeley, an Irish immigrant who worked as a railroad section boss. He lived with his family, but he also had at least five railroad hands living with him. Were the railroad hands new hires that might not have had the funds to live on their own yet? Or were they just single men who did not want to live on their own and the boss had space in his house?

Women's Occupations

Occupations listed for women also caught my eye. Most of the women that I noticed were keeping house or were farmers. However, there were women who were “tayloresses," “dressmakers," “students," “hospital nurses," “teachers," and “dining room matrons." At the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home, superintendent and assistant superintendent were positions held by women. With the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home I found it interesting that on the 1870 census the home was still counted as being in Normal, but was marked as being apart from the rest of the town.

There were also some odd titles that women were given during this time. One example of this was Laura M. Rockwood of Normal who was listed as being an “old maid." To me this title seems to be more than a little harsh. While Laura was unmarried at the age of 48, and living with her younger brother and his family, I think that she is still too young to have the title of old maid. However, this is another difference between 1870 and today. Today we mostly do not consider 48 as being old with no possibility of getting married. However, in 1870, 48 was considered old.

Twins and Triplets

I have looked at the entire 1870 census for McLean County and am still working on looking at the 1900 census for the county. I noticed that in 1870 the census workers were making more notes about when a family had twins. I found it interesting and sometimes entertaining to see what the parents had named their twins:

  • •Ada and Ida
  • •Virginia and Columbus (Yates Township)
  • •Samson and Samuel Taylor, both blacksmiths
  • •Lucian and Lucy (Lexington Township)
  • •Nora and Flora (Lexington Township)
  • •Lawrence and Florence (Money Creek Township)

Beyond getting a laugh out of some of these names, I find myself thinking that the parents might have been trying to be unique or funny with the names of their children. In addition to the twins mentioned above, I found one set of triplets-- Mary A., Minnie J., and Elizabeth Meeke, of Lawndale. There was also a family in Gridley that actually had two sets of twins!

While I was working with the censuses I have learned a lot. Not only did I learn how handwriting has changed in 144 years or who was living in the area, but I got a brief glimpse into the past of McLean County.