Chances are, if your surname is Cooper, Currier, Miller, Slater, Smith, Tanner, Tailor/Taylor, or Wright, etc., the earliest known source for your name can be traced to those ancestors employed with such skills at a time when an occupation typically became the family’s surname. Over time, others may have adopted occupational surnames even though they, themselves, held no skilled connection to such a name.
Some names are more obvious than others. A few years ago while writing this article on surname occupations, and discussing it with my husband, Ed began his own litany of surnames – Baker, Barber, Butcher, Carpenter, Plumber, Electrician… Laughing, I said, “No one’s last name is Electrician!” to which he replied, “Oh that’s right; they shortened it to Sparks!” You’re so helpful, dear!
Centuries ago, typical Scandinavian patronymic (paternal) surnames used the father’s first name with sons adding “sson/sen/zen/zon” and daughters adding “dotter/dottr”, i.e. Nielsson/Nielsen, Nielsdottr”. Thus, each generation was tracked by the father’s birth name as a prefix in a generational changing surname. Legislation began in 1771 to establish permanent surnames, with subsequent amendments enacted frequently since. Surnames also denoted town of residence, name of residence, or occupation, for example: Moller = Miller, Schmidt = Smith, and Fisker = Fisher.
Norwegian surnames might also reference their farmland, such as: Bakke/Bakken (hill or rise), Berg/Berge (mountain or hill), Dahl/Dal (valley), Haugen/Haugan (hill or mound), Lie (side of a valley), Moen (meadow), or Rud (clearing). Similarly, Swedish surnames include Lind/Lindberg (linden/lime + mountain), Berg/Bergkvist (mountain/mountain + twig), Alström/Ahlström (alder + stream), or Dahl/Dahlin (valley). Read more HERE.
As a genealogist, I enjoy the study of surnames and what they mean, and to what nationality they’re linked. In genealogy research, I’ve been bemused by some of the names chosen centuries ago when families were forced to take a designated surname. I am more familiar with our Dutch family names, many families forced to adopt permanent surnames by Napoleon if they didn’t already have one. After occupying the Netherlands, on August 18, 1811, Napoleon required the hardy Dutch to register permanent surnames. The stubborn Dutchmen that they were/are, you can find many interesting surnames among today’s Dutch if you delve into the meaning, including serious, humorous, place names, and occupational names.
Apparently, the top 10 Dutch surnames include: DeJong/DeYonge (the Young), Jansen (Jan’s son, like the American Johnson), De Vries (the Frisian, or of Vriesland), Van De Berg/Van Den Berg/Van Der Berg (from the mountain), Van Dijk/Van Dyk/Dyke (residing near a dijk/dyk/dike), Bakker (a baker), Visser (means fisherman with variations including Vissers, Visscher and Visschers. After emigration to America, this surname was often changed to Fisher, which my paternal grandfather’s uncle did); Smid/Smit/De Smit/Smidt/Smits (a blacksmith), Meijer/Meyer/Hofmeijer (a farmer who managed a farm/estate for the owner/landlord like the ancient feudal system.)
My paternal grandmother’s Vos of Zuid/South Holland province means fox. My paternal grandfather’s Visscher (fisherman) family is from Groningen province, close to Germanic influence, and my husband’s Roorda (similar to the English Edward meaning famous guardian) is Frisian. The first documented Roorda in Friesland province rode with Charlemagne, though I don’t know how my husband’s ancestors connect to him. My mother-in-law’s family names include Van Der Heide (from the moor/heath), Van Den Berg (from the hill/mountain), and ten Kate (the cat).
Other common Dutch surnames include Boer (farmer), Buskirk (bush church, i.e. kirk/church in the woods), de Groot (the large or great), de Wit (the blond), Mulder (miller), Noteboom (nut/walnut tree), ten Boom (at/the tree or pole), Van Der Zee (from the sea), van Dorp (from the village) van Staalduinen (from the steel dune) – you get the idea!
As my long-time readers will recall, I’ve been enamored with all things Dutch having been born into a paternal full Dutch family. Though my mother’s family had had little knowledge of their full ancestry until my in-depth research, it is interesting to note my mother’s paternal Swiss Dallenbach/Tillapaugh/German Kniskern and maternal Scots-Irish McNeill/German Ottman are overwhelmingly Dutch and German Palatine with Scots-Irish, English and French scattered amongst them. That my mother’s parents each descend from one of the only two sons of a German Palatine widow is also among my treasured ancestral findings.
I extracted a number of Dutch surnames from Wikipedia, particularly since early New York was settled predominantly by the Dutch in New Netherlands. Think about the names below, sound them out using your best phonics, and you’ll hear names and terms in use today, many of which are familiar to me from my grandparents and their friends.
Baas – The Boss
Bakker – Baker
Beek, van – From the brook
Bos – Forest
Berg, van der/den – From the cliff, mountain
Berkenbosch- birch wood, a grove of birch trees
Boer, de – the Farmer
Boogaard – from the orchard, Americanized as Bogart
Boor, van der – possibly of the same French root as Boer – farmer or simple person, aka boorish
Bouwman – mason, construction worker
Brouwer – Brewer
Bruin, de (Bruijn, de) – brown
Buskirk, van – literally bush church, or church in the woods
Cornelissen – son of Cornelis/Cornelius
Dekker – from the verb dekken or to cover as in covering roof tops (compare English "Thatcher")
Dijk, Deijck, van – From the dike
Dijkstra – From the dike
Graaf, de – The count/earl
Heide, van der – from the heath
Hendriks, Hendriksen, Hendrix – Henry's son
Heuvel, van den – From the hill, mound
Kuiper, Cuyper, Kuyper, de – the Cooper
Leeuwen, van – From Leeuwen/Leuven; Levi
Jaager, de – the Hunter
Jansen, Janssen – Jan's son (compare Johnson)
Jong, de – the Junior
Koning, Koningh, de – the King
Lange, de – the long/the tall
Linden, van der – from the Linden (type of tree)
Meijer, Meyer – Bailiff or steward
Meer, van der – From the lake
Molen, van der – from the Mill
Mulder, Molenaar – Miller
Maarschalkerweerd – Keeper of the horses (compare English marshal)
Peters or Pieters – Peter's son
Prins – Prince
Ruis, Ruys, Ruisch, Ruysch – the sound of wind or water (surname common with millers).
Rynsburger – inhabitant of Rijnsburg
Smit, Smits – Smith
Teuling – Toll taker
Timmerman – Carpenter (timber man)
Tuinstra – From the Garden
Visser – Fisher [my ancestral Visscher – Fisherman (from Groningen, near Germanic influence)]
Vliet, van – From the vliet (type of water)
Vries, de – from Friesland/Frisian
Vos – Fox
Westhuizen, van der – from the houses located in the west
Willems, Willemsen – William's son
Wit, de – White (= the blond)
But, back to our preoccupation with occupational surnames, particularly old English surnames. Brewster was a woman brewer of alcoholic beverages, like beer. Chapman, old English for ceapmann, was a merchant or salesman. A cooper made wooden barrels or tubs with innumerable uses. A miller owned or worked in a mill, especially noted early on for grinding grain into flour. A smith was a blacksmith, hammering out iron objects heated in the fire. A tanner cured hides, while a currier (remember the artwork of Currier and Ives?) removed the hair from the hide, readying it to be made into leather goods. An experienced tailor could sew the finest outfits just by taking your measurements. A wright was a skilled woodworker, the word replaced by carpenter in the 11th century. A prefix designated other skills a wright might be proficient in – i.e. a shipwright built ships, a wheelwright made and repaired wooden wheels, a millwright set up machinery, and a wainwright was a wagon maker.
The name Cooper is Anglo-Saxon, stemming from the original Latin word cupa, Middle Dutch kuiper, German kuper, and anglicized in England during the 8th century. Surnames were also necessary when governments implemented a personal tax, or the Poll Tax as it was known in England. Over the centuries, many surnames have changed spellings, some dramatically so, often due to one’s ability to spell, or lack thereof. This fact alone is key when researching your ancestors.
A cooper was a skilled craftsman who worked with a variety of carpentry tools. He made and shaped wooden staves with broadaxes, planes and drawknives to form the rounded vessel, which in turn was held together by wooden or metal hoops/rings around the exterior. He then fashioned wooden lids or barrelheads to fit tightly. A cooper played a vital role within a community. His barrels, buckets, butter churns, casks, firkins, hogsheads, kegs and tubs, etc. were needed to hold milk, water and a whole range of staples/food supplies, dry food goods, gunpowder, and other liquids like beer and wine. The products of a cooper’s trade were generally known as cooperage, or individually a piece of cooperage.
A dry or slack cooper made wooden containers for dry goods including grains, nails, tobacco, fruits and vegetables. A dry-tight cooper’s casks kept moisture out, enabling gunpowder and flour to be preserved. A white cooper made the pails, buckets, dippers, butter churns and tubs to hold liquids, but these were not used for shipping. These containers used straight staves, or wood that was not bent. The wet or tight cooper made barrels and casks in which liquids, including beer and wine, could be stored and preserved, and later transported. Certain woods have long been used in wine barrels to give a distinctive flavor enhancement to wine and liquors.
When we think of a miller, one who owned or worked in a mill, we usually envision a gristmill in an idyllic setting by a flowing stream and peaceful pond. The water flowed over the wooden “paddle wheel” which turned the shaft/gears which turned the millstone. A miller is among the oldest professions, a vital link within the community since everyone needed his product. Millers took grain and ground it finely between two flat millstones to make flour, the staple of breads, biscuits, pastries and pasta. Almost every community had its own mill for the convenience of local farmers transporting their grain. The miller’s income often stemmed from a “miller’s toll,” a certain percentage of the grain he had milled rather than a monetary fee.
Wikipedia describes the milling process well: “The millstones themselves turn at around 120 rpm. They are laid one on top of the other. The bottom stone, called the bed, is fixed to the floor, while the top stone, the runner, is mounted on a separate spindle, driven by the main shaft. A wheel, or stone nut, connects the runner's spindle to the main shaft, and this can be moved out of the way to disconnect the stone and stop it from turning, leaving the main shaft turning to drive other machinery. This might include driving a mechanical sieve to refine the flour or turning a wooden drum to wind up a chain used to hoist sacks of grain to the top of the mill. The distance between the stones can be varied to produce the grade of flour required; moving the stones closer together produces finer flour.”
Smith, another common old English surname of the Anglo-Saxon era, or the German smithaz or Schmidt, originates from workers who were skilled in working with metal, such as a blacksmith or metalsmith. They made wrought iron or steel items by forging - the process of heating the metal in a fire until it is soft enough to be hammered, bent or cut to make gates, railings, agricultural implements, tools, household items, and weapons, etc. Typically, a blacksmith made horseshoes while a farrier shod the horse, though often their skills were interchangeable. A whitesmith/tinsmith or tinker worked with tin, typically making useful household items. Working with a lighter metal, he did not need the higher temperatures of a blacksmith’s fire. The skills of both a silversmith and goldsmith are self-explanatory.
Tanner is also an ancient Anglo-Saxon surname taken by those employed in the process of tanning animal hides/skins. It is thought to be of Celtic origin, a word for the oak tree and its bark which was used for tanning. A tanner held an important skill during the medieval era when leather was used for many common but necessary items including buckets, clothing, shoes, harness and saddles, and even armor for battle. Tannin (from the German word “tanna” for oak or fir, i.e. Tannenbaum) is the chemical residue from oak tree bark used to treat the animal hides, also producing the coloring during the process.
The Wikipedia article in my research includes a photo entitled “Peeling bark for the tannery in Prattsville, New York during the 1840s, when it was the largest in the world.” Here, men are shown removing strips of bark from the base of trees in the forest. Oak and hemlock were the trees of choice. After peeling the bark off, the trees were sawn into firewood or lumber. The bark was set out to dry, then ground down and put into vats of water, and left to leach out the tannic acid necessary for tanning hides. Many of those early virgin forests were thus logged bare for the tanning products.
Some of the tools used in the process of tanning include:
Fleshing knife – for removing the flesh from an animal skin/hide
Unhairing knife – for removing the animal hair on the skin/hide
Sleeker – for smoothing the skin/hide
Buffer – for shining the animal's skin/hide
Stone mill - driven by horses, used for grinding oak-tree bark which is used during tanning.
In the old days, tanning was an odiferous trade, typically performed by the poor on the outer edges of town. Even today, if the old-fashioned methods are used, tanneries emit foul odors and shops are set up well away from populated areas of town. The process is a lost art, one I found fascinating to read about, even if yucky. Again, Wikipedia gives an apt description of the processes. There may be some within our communities who trap and tan the animal hides to make their own leather. If so, they likely use a modern chemical process which I saw described online. But, for the purpose of the history of this interesting old skill, we’ll describe the ancient process.
When the skins/hides arrived at the tanner’s shack, they were dry, stiff and filthy. The first step was to soak them in salt water for curing to help prevent bacterial decay. The soaking steps also helped to clean and soften the hides. The hides were next treated with a layer of lime, and then pounded and scoured to remove any remaining flesh and fat. The hair needed to be removed, either by soaking in urine, coating it with a lime mixture, or letting the skin putrify for a few months before dipping it into another salt solution. With the hair loosened, the tanner could more easily scrape the hair fibers off with the unhairing knife.
After the hair had been removed, either animal brains, manure/dung or urine was pounded or rubbed into the skin. The ancient tanner often used his bare feet to knead the skins in dung water for a few hours. Centuries ago, tanners hired children to collect dung and urine from chamber pots set out on street corners for such a purpose. Plant juices or bone marrow, urine and rotted brains were used by many African tribes to make soft leather. The ancient Hebrews used oak bark, Egyptians used Babul pods, and the Arabs used barks and roots. Japanese preferred rapeseed (a flowering plant) and safflower oils. Eskimos used fish oil, while Native Americans would smoke the hides to tan them. Mud and alum were used by the ancient Chinese, as did the Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Indians, and Greeks.
Softening the hide can be done by further pounding or rubbing it with sticks or heavy ropes, or by pulling it from the edges with another person to stretch it out. After putting the hide through all these processes, it would be pliable and to ready to use in making various items. I remember going with my father as an early teen to a leather shop in Newark, NJ where he picked out leather of various shades, thickness and flexibility, including alligator hide. Using a variety of tools to create designs, he made beautiful purses for my mother and others in the family. I still have a small one he made when I was about 5.
The ancients took leftover leather scraps from their projects and put them into a vat with water to rot. After several months, this mixture was boiled down to make hide glue. Nothing was wasted!
A cooper, blacksmith, tailor or wheelwright can often be found in living history museums like those I have visited: Bement-Billings Museum in Newark Valley, NY; the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY; Genesee Country Village Museum in Mumford, NY; and Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, just to name a few as there are so many other museums to visit.