Irish Labor Patterns in Alexandria, VA from 1850-1880

A close analysis of the US Census for Alexandria, Virginia from 1850-1880 points to a variety of occupations held by Irish immigrants. The following table lists the number of Irish immigrants with the following occupations:1

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia, 1850s-1880s


# of Irish immigrants listed with occupation in 1850 In 1860 In 1870 In 1880



219 17 3

domestic servant



3 2


17 15


Other* 29 101 18


* This includes a variety of semiskilled occupations and trades, artisanal work, and professional work (i.e. blacksmiths, silversmiths, tailors, fishermen, farmers, carpenters, etc.).

The numbers above are skewed because more information was reported in the 1860 U.S. Census in comparison to the three other years; there were also many more Irish immigrants in Alexandria in 1860.  Census data from the antebellum period mostly listed Irish immigrant men as laborers. There are several exceptions; for example, in the 1850 US Census, John Richards was listed as a physician with property worth $5000.By 1860, there was a small yet noticeable spike in the number of Irish immigrants who worked as grocers, shopkeepers, clerks, or merchants. A large number of Irish immigrants were artisans and craftsmen–blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters, and tanners, among others. Many single, young adult women also were shown as working as domestic servants and seamstresses, particularly in 1860.  No female occupations was included in 1850.3

In the post-war censuses, Irish immigrants moved toward more skilled occupations, trades, small businesses, and white collar professions. One interesting trend are the number of Irish grocers and merchants listed in the 1870 U.S. Census whose property values increased since the last census.  Married Irish women were also noted as keeping house as their occupation, signaling that they no longer worked outside the home or perhaps worked only episodically.

Occupational trends reflect how Irish immigrants melded into the American workforce during the mid-nineteenth century. Starting as unskilled laborers, Irish immigrants–followed by their children and grandchildren–were able to move into more professionalized and skilled work as the century progressed. Irish women, once used to working in order to support themselves and their families, found themselves assuming the role of wife and mother after marriage. Irish workers’ shifting roles in Alexandria’s economy indicates their status as “Americanized” citizens.

1 Krystyn R. Moon, “1850-1880 US Census Data for Alexandria, Virginia,” Unpublished Spreadsheets (2014).

2 “1850 US Census Data for Alexandria, Virginia.”

3 “1860 US Census Data for Alexandria, Virginia.”

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