- Before we had computers, refrigerators, and modern medicine, we had people performing tasks that we now take for granted.
- Jobs like ice cutters and knocker-ups sound ridiculous to us now, but people once relied on these jobs to pay for their homes and food.
- Some of the jobs, like leech collectors and the groom of the stool, are every bit as bizarre as they sound.
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Jobs and industries come and go.
This isn’t the first time that whole swaths of the labour market have gone extinct: The Industrial Revolution did away with gigs that your great-great-grandparents might have had that sound preposterous to us today.
Using the Bureau of Labour Statistic’s occupational classification list from 1850 and some research of our own, we found several bizarre (and now extinct) occupations that were once a part of daily life.
How did people get up for work before alarm clocks? Easy – they hired a knocker-up to tap on or shoot peas at their windows at an appointed time.
This profession became popular in Britain and Ireland in the early 19th century, continuing well into the Industrial Revolution. According to the BBC, some areas in industrial Britain still had a couple of knocker-ups as late as the 1970s.
A knocker-up (or knocker-upper) usually carried a bamboo stick – sometimes several feet long – to tap on high-up windows, waking workers. The task was mostly performed by older men and women as a way of making extra cash.
But who woke the knocker-ups? They were reportedly nocturnal to begin with.
“The knocker-uppers were night owls and slept during the day instead, waking at about four in the afternoon,” author Richard Jones told the BBC.
Luckily, when mechanical pinsetters made bowling more efficient by reducing wait times between turns, attendants were still kept around to clean the machines and fix any jams before more advanced machines were patented.
Back when the farmer’s market was just the market, people called badgers would buy produce from the farmer, bring it to market, and sell it to the customer.
While people still sell goods in open-air markets all over the world, the term “badger” was more popular in Britain. It was still in use in America up until around the Civil War.
Back when medicine was in its “let’s just bleed the patient” phase, people called leech collectors would cull leeches from the ground with animal legs and then sell them to doctors.
This practice was common in the 18th and 19th centuries in both Britain and America – bloodletting via leeches was thought to release the patient of bad humours that made them sick.
To attract leeches from swampy water, leech collectors would lead old horses into the water, then pick off the fresh leeches that would fix themselves onto their skin. If they didn’t have any horses, they’d simply use their own legs.
In a similarly unsavoury case of early medicine, resurrectionists would dig corpses out of graveyards and sell them to medical schools. The practice became especially popular in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Naturally, resurrectionists weren’t well-regarded by British society, who preferred to call them “body snatchers.” Eventually, the British government had had enough of bodies being stolen from cemeteries everywhere, so they let doctors have access to their workhouse dead – the deceased people who lived in workhouses for the poor.
Powder monkeys existed long before child labour laws did.
If you were a young boy between the ages of 12 and 14 on a warship back in the seafaring days, your quick hands would be called upon to stuff gunpowder back into cannons. Poor working-class boys had no choice but to join these voyages, which were extremely dangerous. A cannon blast from an enemy ship could mean instant death or a sunken ship.
“Computer” used to be somebody’s title. Before electronics took over, these workers – usually women – would convert figures and crunch other numbers by hand. They literally computed.
They worked in a variety of fields – including engineering at NASA – until they were replaced in offices by what we know today as computers, beginning as early as the 1970s.
Before it was dismissed as pseudoscience, lots of people went to phrenologists, who could “read” their intelligence and determine traits by the shape of their head.
Phrenology gained traction in the 19th century, especially in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the Edinburgh Phrenological Society was founded in 1820. It also became a convenient basis for racism – a way to “scientifically” prove that whites were the superior race.
Despite the ridiculous notion that feeling bumps on people’s heads to diagnose psychological issues works, phrenology influenced modern psychology. Today, neuroscientists know what certain parts of the brain are responsible for, and psychologists have a much better understanding of how our thoughts and emotions work.
Factory workers needed a little entertainment to distract them from their mindlessly repetitive tasks, so a lector would read news and literature aloud to them.
According to Mashable, cigar factory workers would even pitch in portions of their weekly salary to fund their lectors. Some instances where a lector would be removed by the company led to thousands of workers going on strike.
Before you could get ice from your fridge, you had to cut it from a lake. You’d hire an ice cutter to do so.
In the 19th century, crews of up to 75 men could harvest 1500 tons of ice in a single day before transporting it across the country via train.
People in some parts of the US had never seen ice in such large quantities being shipped from city to city. But thanks to loose snow or a bit of sawdust, and modern technology, workers could keep large quantities of ice from melting for hours.
With the refrigerator and the freezer becoming household items in the mid-20th century, however, ice cutters were no longer needed.
Before everyone had refrigerators, it was difficult to keep milk from going bad. So you’d need it delivered regularly by your milkman.
Milkmen were ubiquitous in Britain, America, and other countries for much of the 20th century. They came almost every morning and left milk on doorsteps, much like a paper boy would with a newspaper. But with home refrigeration, this profession has all but disappeared.
Chimney sweeps cleaned out the chimney soot that built up over time. If you’ve ever seen “Mary Poppins,” you probably have an idea of what one looks like. The reality, however, was much harsher.
Chimney sweeps would regularly inhale harmful smoke from fires, get stuck in chimneys, get cancer from too much soot, and, of course, get burned frequently.
Before we had digital photography or even negatives, we had daguerreotypes, the earliest kind of publicly available photograph. These images on polished silver were made by dedicated daguerreotypists.
By the late 1860s, however, daguerreotypes were already falling out of fashion as cheaper methods were developed, including modern film photography.
Rat catchers snagged the disease-carrying rodents that once ran rampant in residential neighbourhoods.
With the outbreak of the Black Plague, which raged on and off throughout Europe for centuries, rat catchers were crucial for a community’s health and the safety of their food supplies.
Today’s equivalent to the rat catcher is the exterminator, who deals with much more than just rats.
A quarryman would extract stone from the earth that may be used for various construction purposes, like a kitchen counter.
The job was dangerous, involving intense manual labour and occasional maiming or death due to accidents like runaway railway wagons or falling stone.
Groom of the stool
This occupation, oddly enough, maybe one of the most high-ranking ones on this list.
The groom of the stool was an advisor to the English king. Or, to put it more bluntly, he spoke with the king while the king sat on the toilet. There were dozens of these esteemed advisors throughout English history.
With each passing groom, the position became more powerful, until the groom of the stool was more of an advisor on fiscal policy than a mere confidant in the commode.
Vivian Giang contributed to a previous version of this article.
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