Work and Irish Immigration

For members of any immigrant group, one of the most important distinctions for an individual is where they work.  This sentiment was no different for Irish immigrants in the U.S. South in the mid-to-late 19th century.  What is astonishing is how quickly and to what extent Irish occupations transformed in a period of only thirty years.  While not all Irish worked, it can be said that there is a visible shift from unskilled work to artisanal jobs, small business ownership, and even white-collar positions over the period from 1850 to 1880. In the 1850 U.S. Census, many Irish-born men were listed simply as laborers, but by 1880, they were moving into the middle classes.  Caution must be taken, however, when looking at this data. For the most part, those immigrants present in the 1850 U.S. Census were absent in later ones for Alexandria.  Still, by looking at the number of Irish-born within each type of occupation, it is possible to see some upward mobility among these immigrants.

The 1850 U.S. Census for Alexandria shows a large number of Irish immigrant men listed simply as “laborers.”  There are also a few outliers with jobs such as “merchant,” “blacksmith,” or “physician.” Unfortunately, due to the term being used rather loosely, it is impossible to know exactly what type of laborers these men were; however, based on other histories of Alexandria, they probably worked on the newly constructed canal or in railroad construction.  Sadly, women’s jobs were not recorded, so it is impossible to know exactly what percentage of women worked outside the home or episodically through the census.  In Irish in the South, David T. Gleeson contends that in other areas of the South, a handful of Irish women could get jobs as teachers, but an overwhelming majority worked as domestics.1

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia based on the 1850 U.S. Census*

 Occupation Number Percentage
Laborer 41 47.12%
Unskilled/Semi-skilled 2 2.3%
Skilled/Artisan 21 24.14%
Other 19 21.84%
Unemployed/Unknown 4 4.6%
Total 87 100%

*The occupations listed in the table above and elsewhere in this blog post were based on Gleeson’s research; however, in an effort to maintain simplicity, any job that was not listed as “laborer” and did not directly fall under one of the above categories was listed under “Other.”

In 1860, the jobs were fairly similar; however, a sizable number of grocers appeared in the U.S. Census for the first time.  The number of skilled artisans also increased.  Women’s jobs were also recorded, most of whom worked as domestics.  It is important to consider the fact that the number of Irish immigrants living in Alexandria also increased between 1850 and 1860, so when determining the number of immigrants in each type of job, the percentages are arguably more important than the numbers.

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia based on the 1860 U.S. Census

 Occupation Number Percentage
Laborer 219 (male); 0 (female) 66.36% (male); 0% (female)
Unskilled/Semi-skilled 19 (male); 0 (female) 5.76% (male); 0% (female)
Skilled/Artisan 44 (male); 0 (female) 13.33% (male); 0% (female)
Domestic 0 (male); 38 (female) 0% (male) 61.3% (female)
Other 48 (male); 16 (female) 14.55% (male); 25.8% (female)
Unemployed/Unknown 0 (male); 8 (female) 0% (male); 12.9% (female)
Total 330% (male); 62% (female) 100% (male); 100% (female)

By the 1870 U.S. Census, the number of Irish-born immigrants living in Alexandria had decreased significantly, most likely because of the Civil War.  Yet, the types of occupations that Irish immigrants held are still important. There are many more women listed as domestics than in 1860, and they outnumber working men.  The number of laborers is about even with skilled artisans, grocers, and professionals.

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia based on the 1870 U.S. Census

 Occupation Number Percentage
Skilled 4 (male); 0 (female) 12.12% (male); 0% (female)
Unskilled/Semi-skilled 2 (male); 0 (female) 6.06% (male); 0% (female)
Laborer 8 (male); 0 (female) 24.24% (male); 0% (female)
Domestic 0 (male); 32 (female) 0% (male); 76.19% (female)
Other 18 (male); 5 (female) 54.54% (male); 11.9% (female)
Unemployed/Unknown 1 (male); 5 (female) 3.03% (male); 11.9% (female)
Total 33 (male); 42 (female) 100% (male); 100% (female)

Finally, in the 1880 U.S. Census for Alexandria, only five Irish immigrants were listed as laborers, although many others held unskilled occupations that were included in the census. Still, a large number of men held skilled positions, white-collar occupations, or owned a business.  For women, the majority of those who worked outside the home were still domestics.

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia based on the 1880 U.S. Census

Number Percentage
Skilled 2 (male); 0 (female) 8.33% (male); 0% (female)
Unskilled/Semi-skilled 1 (male); 0 (female) 4.17% (male); 0% (female)
Laborer 5 (male); 0 (female) 20.83% (male); 0% (female)
Domestic 0 (male); 27 (female) 0% (male); 72.97% (female)
Other 15 (male); 7 (female) 62.5% (male); 18.92% (female)
Unemployed/Unknown 1 (male); 3 (female) 4.17% (male); 8.11% (female)
Total 24 (male); 37 (female) 100% (male); 100% (female)

Although it is difficult to fully analyze the occupations that these immigrants held across several decades, it is still interesting to see how the workforce changed in the mid-nineteenth century.  After the Civil War, fewer than ten percent of male occupations were unskilled, while the percentage of men entering the middle class increased.  Single women working outside the home also continued to expand.  In the end, the changes in occupations listed in the U.S. Census speaks to shifts in the local economy as well as the Irish immigrant population.

  1. David T. Gleeson, Irish in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 42.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *