Many of us see the same occupations over and over within our families. Farmers tended to beget farmers. Miner's sons followed their fathers into the mines. Sons of doctors often traced their fathers' footsteps into the medical profession. Teachers, both male and female, may appear in other lines. We may have a general idea of what our ancestors' professions entailed, but perhaps not the details. Other times, we may have no idea what an occupation may be. The Genealogy Center has a number of sources to aid you in understanding your ancestors' work lives.
Of course, if you run across an usual job title, one fast and easy method to discover what that occupation entails is to check an unabridged dictionary or check an Internet search engine and easily discover that a cordwainer is someone who works with fine leather, often a shoe maker. But to discover that a girdleier is one who makes belts or shashes or a shuttleworker is a weaver one may have to use Trades and services of Colonial times ( 973.2 T675).
There are also directories and lists of practitioners of various occupations, such as Patsy Page's Directory of Louisiana physicians, 1886 (976.3 P14D) and the 1881 and 1896 editions of The Bankers' directory and list of bank attorneys (929.11 R15B). There are also volumes from societies that cater to certain professions, such as the 1941 and 1949 editions of Roster of the Maine State Grange Patrons of Husbandry (974.1 G75RO). There are also business records available, like that for Sand Lake, New York's Lumberman's account book, 1839-1843 (974.701 R29LU) and the Finis Hurt Store account book, 1889-1890 (976.901 AD1WL) in Adair County, Kentucky.
But one of the best ways to understand your ancestor in his or her profession could be to read diaries from other members of that profession, such as Laurel Ulrich's A midwife's tale: the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785-1812 (974.101 K37U) and The 1805 diary of the Rev. Dr. James Muir: minister of the Old Presbyterian meeting house in Alexandria, Virginia (975.502 AL27MUI). Of course, these diaries may also provide biographical information the people in the area.
So when you want to understand your ancestor, take some time to investigate his or her occupation to add a deeper understanding of their lives.