In recent times, some traditional manual skills have been taken over by automation and computers. Indeed, as industries and technologies evolve, certain lines of work have become obsolete. And in some cases, it’s amazing they ever existed at all. Here are some jobs from the past that your careers advisor can no longer help you with.
Before desktop publishing, page layouts were rendered by hand before they being loaded to a printing press. In the late 19th century, each letter and space was painstakingly selected and laid out on metal typesetting apparatus to print the daily newspaper. However, in the 1960s, phototypesetting took over and made the role redundant.
39. Town Crier
Today we get to hear about all breaking news as it happens via TV, radio or even social media. But before such conveniences, important news was conveyed in a much different way. From the 1700s right up until the early 20th century, town criers would wander the streets ringing a bell and bellowing urgent news to their communities.
38. VCR Repairman
Anyone in their 30s or older will likely remember video cassette recorders. Before Blu-rays and Netflix, movies and TV box sets were sold or rented on videotape. Now, those tapes sometimes got stuck and the slot on the VCR was often an invitation for kids to post sandwiches. The VCR repairman, then, was your only option.
37. Video Store Clerk
Moreover, just as the VCR repairman became extinct, so did the role of video store clerk. Blockbuster was like a lending library for video tapes and later DVDs. Its staff were as knowledgable about movies as librarians are about books. In its heyday in the mid-’00s, the chain employed almost 60,000 staff in the U.S. However, streaming services made Blockbuster and its employees unnecessary.
36. Switchboard Operator
Before the automatic exchange became commonplace, phone calls were connected by the switchboard operator. Up until the 1960s, when the receiver was lifted, the raised cradle activated a light on the operator’s switchboard. The operator would connect the call via a network of cables, plugged into the control panel by a jack.
35. Film Boxer
Two decades ago, becoming a film boxer might have been a way for aspiring directors to get their break at production companies. You see, it was a starter position that involved gathering and packing film canisters for storage or delivery. Today the role requires sending compressed files via email and has the title digital imaging technician.
34. Book Peddler
Before postal workers and courier drivers delivered books direct to your door by mail order, sometimes book peddlers would come knocking. You see, rather than relinquishing money on rent for a shop and employees, salesmen would offer samples of their wares — typically books and illustrations — right on the buyer’s doorstep. What’s more, customers were sometimes more receptive to their visits than other cold-callers.
Before the convenience of picking up a carton of eggs in the grocery store, they were sold direct from farms by egglers. At times they would offer up other poultry produce, too. And if that wasn’t enough, they’d mix it up with other foods. You might even see an eggler today if you head to your local farmer’s market.
32. Hush Shopkeeper
Rule number one of hush shopkeeping might very well have been to not talk about hush shopkeeping. You see, these store clerks were so named because they sold liquor during prohibition, and consequently needed to keep their activities quiet. And so, when prohibition came to an end in 1933, the role of the hush shopkeeper expired with it.
Early cameras that were made accessible in the mid-1800s were known as daguerreotypes. They were popular for snapping portraits of public figures such as politicians, for instance Abraham Lincoln, and other celebrities. It was the daguerreotypist’s job, then, to take photos and chemically develop the images. Today we have smart phones and selfie sticks.
Imagine a world without having to wake up to an alarm. Well, before mechanical alarm clocks became commonplace, people still needed to rise on time. So, in the absence of a handy gadget, knocker-uppers were employed to tap on people’s windows to wake them. And while the practice sounds antiquated, they actually operated as recently as the 1950s.
29. Leech Collector
Medicine was a little bit different in the 19th century compared to what we know today. For instance, “bloodletting” was commonly practiced by doctors as a means to suck impurities out of blood and illnesses out of the body. Physicians would draw blood by hand or using leeches, which were gathered by leech collectors and sold to doctors and hospitals.
28. Lamp Lighter
Street lights were once powered by oil or candles. It was someone’s job, then, to ignite the lights as daylight faded, and extinguish them the next morning. That role was filled by the lamp lighter. Prior to that, link boys were hired to bear torches to ensure streets were illuminated at night in the Middle Ages, with some even providing a personal service. Both roles were eventually snuffed out with the advent of automated electric street lighting.
27. Breaker Boy
Coal mining is a labor intensive operation that, up until the late 1800s, was entirely manual. The process required impurities to be separated from the coal, for which breaker boys were employed under huge controversy. You see, these boys were aged from eight to 12 years old, violating child labor laws. Around 1920, those laws became more strictly enforced and, together with advanced mining technology, the role was scrapped.
26. Dictaphone Operator
It’s likely that your smartphone comes with an app, or there’s one readily available, that records voice memos. However, around 100 years ago, that was a job for the dictaphone operator. The typist used a stethoscope-style headset hooked up to the machine while operating a cylinder with a stop-start foot pedal. Speedy transcribers earned more than other typists at around $1-1.25 per hour.
25. Ice Cutter
Before modern refrigeration, extreme measures were taken to keep food cold throughout the winter months. For instance, in the early 19th century, ice cutters were employed to venture out onto lakes and rivers to collect blocks of ice using hand tools or saws. It was a dangerous job in cold conditions on freezing water.
24. Log Driver
When the logging industry was in its infancy, the easiest and most cost effective way of transporting logs was by river. Logs were bound together into a makeshift raft and assigned a log driver to steer the bundle of felled trees down stream to the mill. Many workers lost their lives, and yet the method was still utilized up until the 1970s.
23. Cigarette Girl
According to the World Health Organization, smoking is on the decline across the world. That’s been helped in the U.S. by smoking bans for enclosed public spaces. However, when smoking was more prevalent, it wasn’t unusual for nightclubs to hire a woman to sell cigarettes from a tray hanging from her neck. The role existed up until around the mid-20th century.
22. Elevator Operator
The role of an elevator operator was a challenging one, for they did more than press a few buttons. Manual elevators were operated on a large lever, which set off and stopped the car, but also controlled the speed. Its operator, then, needed to demonstrate impeccable judgment of speed and distance to draw level with each floor. They also served both as host and store guide.
In the early days of bowling, there were no machines to sweep away and reset the pins. Instead the job was carried out by hand by a pinsetter. It was also their responsibility to return the ball to the player. The process was more time consuming than today’s Brunswick A-2 Pinsetting machine, which does the job in a few seconds.
If you’re lucky, you have a boss who’s cool with you playing an audiobook or podcast through your headphones while you work. However, in the 1900s, it wasn’t so easy to keep up with the world outside while at work. In the absence of radios and TVs, then, factories hired lectors to read newspapers to their staff.
19. Clock Winder
As the name suggests, it was the clock winder’s job, before the industrial revolution, to wind up clocks manually. Inevitably the job became obsolete, but there’s one special case. You see, in 2013, The Queen of England was looking to hire a clock winder for around $50,000 a year. And if that sounds excessive, that’s because there are around 1,000 clocks in Buckingham Palace.
Early in the 1800s, the original signalmen were known as Railway Police and would communicate instructions to train drivers and each other via a flag system. Points were managed by a series of levers and switches to send trains to the correct destination. Today the points on railway networks operate at the push of a button.
17. Human Computer
Computers and smartphones can take much of the hard work out of thinking. However, it took machines several decades to outsmart people. As long ago as the 1700s, complex calculations were worked out using only the human brain — indeed, mostly by women. The real-life story of NASA’s female, African-American mathematicians during the space race was told in the book and film Hidden Figures.
Employees called “lungs” were found in alchemist shops around the 1300s to 1500s. It was their job to fan the flames while metals were smelted. However, the process was a highly toxic one, with dangerous chemicals released into the air. When the workers breathed in the cocktail of fumes, their own lungs became blackened and the role was eventually retired.
A mudlark was a type of scavenger who would go in search of discarded valuables to sell. Typically it was undertaken by those in extreme poverty, with the worker lacking any observable skills. They combed muddy riverbanks at low tide, often among human waste and even human corpses and dead domestic animals. It was deemed unlawful from 1904.
14. Necessary Women
There were households that just couldn’t live without necessary women in the pre-colonial era. You see, they were a type of maid employed for the specific task of cleaning out chamber pots on a daily basis. It was only when indoor bathrooms became the norm towards the end of the 18th century that the profession disappeared.
13. Powder Monkey
Some occupations are specific to certain circumstances in specific periods in time. For instance, in battle during the Age of Sail – the mid-16th to mid-19th centuries — it was the powder monkey’s job to keep cannons stuffed with gunpowder. However, the role became redundant as the navy’s artillery grew more sophisticated.
A vivandière was effectively a maid, albeit an extremely prestigious one. The role originated in France, and they served during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, with the title later cropping up in the American Civil War. Vivandières accompanied troops, tending to minor injuries, fixing uniforms, cooking meals and carrying water for soldiers. The role was dissolved by the French War Ministry in the early 20th century before the First World War began.
Today we have pest control, but in Europe during the 14th century rat catching was a useful occupation. Work was particularly prevalent during the Great Plague from 1347 to 1351. Furthermore, in Victorian times the rat catchers – or ratteners – sold their wares to pubs where the rodents would be used for fun and games or, gruesomely, devoured by dogs.
10. Gong Farmer
The modern sewage system became widely adopted somewhere around the 18th century. So you may wonder what happened to human waste from people’s homes before then. Well, around the 1400s to 1600s it was up to gong farmers to collect it all from cesspits and privies. In fact, “gong” was a slang term that described both a privy and what it contained.
9. Herb Strewer
Inevitably, those privies and cesspits left behind an utterly repugnant stench. It was a foul smell that wasn’t tolerated by the wealthier citizens, and they were in a financial position to do something about it. So they employed herb strewers to cultivate roses, as well as herbs such as lavender, basil and chamomile to mask the smell.
A redsmith was so known as a result of the material they worked with. You see, they made artifacts out of copper, which has a vibrant bronze color when polished. Though there are still a few redsmiths in existence today, it’s rare that any metalsmith, as they are more widely known, works with only one type of metal.
7. Dispatch Rider
Although motorcycle couriers still exist, during World Wars One and Two they were called dispatch riders and had specific task. It was their responsibility to communicate vital messages between military factions. Although radios were available, they were unreliable and vulnerable to interception. As it happens, motorcycle couriers are still sometimes referred to as dispatch riders in the U.K.
6. Aircraft Listener
Today military air defence relies on radar. So before the invention of such technology, more rudimentary methods were utilized. For instance prior to the Second World War, the British military employed aircraft listeners who would pick up the sound of hostile planes using acoustic mirrors. Although the technique was effective, enemy aircraft were often detected too late to respond.
5. Soda Jerk
Much like a barista in the 21st century, the soda jerk was a good occupation for high schoolers or college goers. It was a similar role, too, in that instead of coffee, soda was served with a side of ice cream instead of a pastry, while uniforms consisted of crepe hats and bow ties. However, the drugstore-centric role was eventually eclipsed by drive-ins and fast-food joints.
Today it requires legal permission to exhume human remains. However, just a couple of hundred years ago, dead bodies were required for medical students to practice procedures on. A resurrectionist, then, was someone who dug up corpses and supplied them to medical schools in exchange for cash. The practice would be considered highly questionable today, to say the least.
3. Toad Doctor
If you thought dubious medical practices couldn’t get any weirder, then you’re probably not familiar with toad doctors. Doctors offered this form of “folk magic” in the 1800s to cure scrofula – a swelling of the lymph nodes linked to tuberculosis. By hanging a muslin bag containing a toad (alive or dead, it didn’t matter) around the patient’s neck, the ailment was believed to disappear.
Today it’s accepted that different parts of the brain are associated with different functions. However, phrenology followed the theory that, as the organ of the mind, the brain governed personality traits, which could be determined by the shape of the skull. It was the phrenologists job to judge your intelligence by bumps on the skull. However, the practice was discredited in the 1840s.
1. Groom Of The Stool
Despite the Groom Of The Stool’s responsibilities, it was actually considered a highly respected position. You see, it was the Groom’s responsibility to assist kings of England in the urgent matter of using the bathroom. Being such an intimate role, the assistant became a confidante for the monarch. However, it was a post that only kings employed, and all but disappeared during Elizabeth I’s reign which ended in 1603.