Sunday, April 6, 2014

20 Obsolete Jobs

As time passes, the world changes.  And some of those changes center around the job market. What at one time was considered a vital occupation, in the reality of today's world is now obsolete.

Here's a list of 20 such jobs, formerly prevalent but now non-existent.

Wading through unprocessed sewage and sometimes dead bodies, mudlarks would dredge the banks of the Thames River in London at low tide hoping to find trinkets to sell. The profession was popular amidst children and the elderly during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Knocker Upper
Before alarm clocks, people hired knocker uppers to bang on their window—with sticks, pebbles or clubs—each morning to get them out of bed and off to work. The practice was especially popular in England and Ireland during the Industrial Revolution.

The first publicly available photographic process, called the daguerreotype, was introduced in 1839. Skilled daguerreotypists used light-sensitive chemicals and mercury vapor (later found poisonous) to create detailed images on copper plates.

Bowling Alley Pinsetter
Before the automatic pinsetter was introduced in 1946,bowling alleys hired staff to reset the pins and roll back the balls for clients. Since the job was part time, low paying and involved physical labor, it often went to teenaged boys.

Sin Eater
19th century families looking to rid their recently deceased descendent of mortal sin could hire a sin eater, usually a desperate pauper, to take on the relative’s offenses by dining over the corpse. The practice was very much frowned upon by the church.

Human Computer
Before electronics took over, workers were employed to act as human computers, converting figures and crunching numbers by hand. Teams of computers—often women with mathematics degrees—usually divvied up long calculations so that work could be done simultaneously and quickly.

Ice Cutter
Before modern refrigeration and air conditioning, ice cutters used saws to excise chunks of ice from frozen lakes for clients’ cellars and ice boxes. While the profession has died, the practice of ice cutting is still used for snow and ice sculpture competitions.

Hemp Dresser
When hemp was a major part of the linen industry, factories employed hemp dressers to separate the coarse part of the hemp with a toothed instrument called a hackle. Once smooth and straight, the hemp could be spun.

Listener For Enemy Aircraft
Before radar, troops used various listening devices, like acoustic horns, sound mirrors and war tubas, to detect the engine sounds of enemy planes. While their success varied widely, listeners were considered imperative until the 1930’s.

Whipping Boy
In 15th century England, only a king could discipline his son. Since the monarch was often busy, a whipping boy was hired to take beatings from the prince’s overseers when the little royal was being a royal pain. Seeing his pal—princes and whipping boys were raised together from birth—being lashed was intended to reform the prince.

Rat Catcher
Employed in Europe between the Middle Ages and early 19th century, rat catchers found and killed rats in order to control the population and prevent the spread of disease. Catchers used traps, cats, terriers and even their bare hands to snag the pests.

Leech Collector
A popular way to earn a living in the 1800’s was as a leech collector. These brave individuals would lie in ponds, using their bare legs as leech bait. They’d later sell the bloodsuckers to pharmacists and medical practitioners.

Before electricity, town-employed lamplighters used long poles to light street lamps every night and extinguish them every morning. They were also responsible for repairing and maintaining the lights. Many lamplighters also took it upon themselves to act as neighborhood watchmen.

Log Driver
Log drivers, nicknamed “river pigs,” were essential to the early lumber industry. Well paid but easily injured or killed, these men guided logs along rivers from the woods to sawmills several miles downstream.

In the 19th century, toshers removed manhole covers to enter the sewers in search of coins and miscellaneous scraps to sell. While the dirty gig paid surprisingly well, novice toshers could drown or get caught and penalized for illegally accessing the sewer system.

Gong Farmer
In Tudor England, gong farmers held the crappy—literally—job of removing excrement from privies and cesspits and dumping the gong outside of the city boundaries. Often called night men because they were only allowed to work after hours, gong farmers were disease prone the thus forced to live on the outskirts of town.

Also known as body snatchers, resurrectionists dug bodies out of graves to sell to medical schools for anatomy lessons and dissections. The industry boomed in the 17th and 18th centuries when executions, the usual source of corpses, became more rare and medical institutions multiplied.

Factory Lector
Late 19th and early 20th century cigar factory workers hired lectors to sit on raised platforms and read the news or novels. A prized lector not only had a pleasant reading voice but could also act out the roles in the novels he read.

Fullers, often female slaves, rid wool of oils, dirt and other impurities. Before you decide that doesn’t sound so bad, consider this: during Roman Times fullers had to stand in a tub full of wash, also known as human urine, which served as the source of ammonium salts needed for cleansing and whitening of cloth.

And finally…

Groom of the Stool
Like most English monarchs, Henry VIII employed a groom of the stool whose job consisted of conversing during defecation and cleaning the royal rear end. Though gross, the job was coveted because it provided unobstructed access to the king and also paid well.
Most of these jobs are obviously from times long gone. Much more recent additions to the list could include home delivery of blocks of ice for the pre-refrigerator ice box, rooms filled with telephone operators putting through long distance and even local calls using the old cord switchboards. As a child growing up in Los Angeles, I remember the milk man making home deliveries of dairy products, the bread truck making home deliveries, and even a company that made home deliveries of pet food.

And nearly gone are gas station attendants who actually pump your gas for you, check the oil, and wash your window. But that's one better left for next week when I talk about jobs predicted to be obsolete in the next 20 years. So, don't forget to come back to check that out.


Ashantay said...

No wonder people didn't live long! So many of the jobs were filthy. Amazing what people did to put food on their table. I'll have to check back to see if one of my old jobs is include in your next listing!

Samantha Gentry said...

Hi, Ashantay: Yep, same thing I was thinking. Disgustingly filthy. Germs galore. I do like the use of the term 'resurrectionist'. It sounds so much more polite and acceptable than the more accurate 'body snatcher'. :)

Thanks for your comment.

Laura Strickland said...

What a fascinating post! I think I must have been a Mudlark in a past life ... Thanks for the intriguing info!

Samantha Gentry said...

Laura: I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Thanks for your comment.