Whether you are a history hound or simply researching your family tree, you have probably come across occupations that are now extinct or most certainly rare. Ever wonder what those jobs entailed or where they went? Let's have a look at what some of our ancestors did for a living.
Some occupations on our list disappeared thanks to advances in technology, while others were deemed undesirable or dangerous professions and were phased out with improved labour laws. Jobs have appeared and waned throughout the course of human history, and quite often, it was for the better.
When I was a child, we used to take family outings to the bowling alley. The bowling pinsetter was a job generally reserved for teenagers; the lowly paid job was the norm before automated pinsetters were introduced in the late 1950s. I can still remember them here in Newmarket until the 1960s.
Some jobs of the past may seem a little weird to us today. One of these is the human alarm clock, also known as a knocker-uppers. While it was particularly common in Britain and Ireland during the 1920s, it was also to be found here in the larger cities in Canada.
Before the invention of the mechanical fridge, men would head out to the frozen lakes and cut blocks of ice with a hand saw for use in ice houses. These people were known as ice cutters and Fairy Lake was one of their common workplaces. Nowadays, the trade is reserved for the artistic pursuit of ice sculpting only.
One of the occupations I would definitely stay away from is that of the rat catcher. The job of was vital to keeping rat populations under control in large cities to prevent food damage and the spread of disease. It may be a profession that we should consider bringing back with the problem of rats and raccoons that we have in Toronto.
An excellent example of a profession that fell by the wayside with the advent of technology is the lamplighter. If we had not got electricity, we would still be lighting streetlights by hand. The only lamplighters today exist purely for tourist purposes, but before the 19th century, night owl lamplighters were responsible for lighting up our streets.
A job I always wanted to have as a child was that of a milkman. Before household fridges and long-life milk, milkmen had to deliver milk daily to ensure it didn’t spoil. Milkman hasn’t been a common job since the 1970s, though in some places it is seeing a revival.
An occupation found in our history books is that of the log driver. Before trucks, logs were transported to the sawmill using the river system and a team of men also known as lumber jacks. The men guided the logs down river and ensured there were no jams along the way.
Another job that disappeared due to technology is that of the phone operator. Until the 1960s, companies used switchboard operators to connect incoming calls. In a description from the 1950s, the switchboard operation is described as an early example of a profession that got women into the workforce, their “courteous manner” deemed more suitable to this type of role. In truth I suspect they were also considered a preferable employee because they could be paid a lot less. Some companies still have a receptionist / switchboard operator.
In the old movies we see the resurrectionist, a gruesome, extinct job where people were employed by scientists to become “body snatchers” who would illegally dig up dead bodies for anatomical research. This profession has hopefully become extinct.
How many people remember the soda jerk, an ideal job for many young people? I remember them using pop spigots while wearing a bow tie and white paper hats serving ice cream and drinks to order. Competition from fast food restaurants and drive-ins aided in the disappearance of the traditional soda jerk.
Starting in the 18th and 19th centuries, some booksellers travelled door to door rather than setting up a brick-and-mortar location. Book peddlers would carry samples of the books and illustrations they offered to promote their products. My first set of encyclopedias were purchased in such a manner by my Grandma. Today, most provinces have passed laws preventing door to door soliciting. I understand that some still exist.
The travelling daguerreotypist was the first form of photo service available to the public. It was immensely popular throughout the mid-19th century and captured portraits of many celebrities and politicians of the time. The daguerreotypists were responsible for capturing photos with their cameras and developing them through a chemical process. Eventually newer, cheaper processes were introduced, rendering daguerreotypists obsolete.
The profession of telegraphist was a prime profession during the telegraph's prime. Telegraphists dispatched messages like our modern email over long distances. I remember the train station had a small telegraph room when I was a child. As new forms of communication evolved, the telegraph and Morse code became outdated
A profession that was new to me is that of the human computer. Long before laptops and PCs, people were employed as computers. These jobs were often held by women who worked in teams to figure out lengthy mathematical calculations. Human computers solved problems ranging from astronomy to trigonometry. You may remember all those who were code breakers during the war, same idea, I think. As to be expected, these jobs have been replaced by the computers we use today.
Throughout history, the job of clock keeper evolved along with the technology. In its early existence, the job involved ringing a large, centralized bell several times a day. Later, when the mechanical clock was invented, winding and upkeep of the city's clocks were necessary tasks to ensure accuracy.
Another profession that has virtually faded from existence is that of the film projectionist. The use of film to project movies in theatres is becoming a rarity, so there aren't many people who know how to work with film anymore. Having a film projector has become prohibitively expensive, and with the rise of digital projection, the act of spooling canisters of filmstrips is a dying art. The candy girls who provided service at your seat has disappeared along with the projectionist. Sad really.
The passenger-operated elevators that we have today are very simple compared to their manual predecessors that needed to have a trained operator. Instead of buttons, older elevators had a lever that would regulate their speed, and the elevator operator would need to be able to land on the right floor. While there are still elevator operators around today, their job is much more focused on security.
With deference to my associate Athol Hart, the town crier has disappeared for all but ceremonial occasions. Town criers were responsible for publicizing court orders, usually by way of shouting in the street so that everyone in the area was able to hear the news. To gain attention, they'd shout "Oyez", meaning "hear ye" and rang a large handheld bell.
During the heyday of the railroad, a gandy dancer would carry out any task related to the railroad track, including setting ties, hammering spikes, and replacing rail. A gandy dancer was an integral part of railroad maintenance in the 1820s.
A job I find rather weird is that of the phrenologists who specialized in the study of the human brain based on the size and shape of a person's head. Phrenologists believed the shape of people's heads correlated to their intelligence and had many gadgets to prove their theories. Alas the idea never caught on likely due to its racist and sexist slant.
While they are still around, the scissors grinder or knife man would sharpen knives, scissors or other tools using an abrasive wheel and would likely go door to door performing the service. The job disappeared by the 1970s, as most people found it cheaper and easier to purchase new tools instead of sharpening their old ones. I still see the man on our street from time to time.
A job I wish had survived is that of the nomenclator who announced the names of people or guests visiting their household. Politicians and businessmen took up the practice of hiring a nomenclator, having them whisper the names of guests or people as they approached making the host appear knowledgeable and personable. This would have saved me some embarrassment.
In the early 1900s, factories employed a lector to read books or newspapers aloud to keep its employees entertained. The lector would often stand or sit on an elevated surface while reading the news so that the entire factory could hear.
Long before the age of digital printing, linotype operators were responsible for arranging the hot-metal type on presses to publish newspapers. In the 1960s, faster phototypesetting, which required less-skilled workers, rapidly rendered linotype obsolete. Nowadays, the decline of print means all typesetting jobs are moving toward extinction.
Another job associated with the printing business is that of the scribe. Before printing was invented, scribes would copy manuscripts and other documents word for word, common in the medieval period around 1350. Eventually, the printing press was invented, and this tedious job became obsolete. I knew a gentleman while I was in university who did customized books for special occasions. He was called a calligrapher.
In the 19th century, when streets were frequently dirty, littered, and filled with sewage, people would hire crossing sweepers to sweep a path ahead of pedestrians as they walked down the street. Wealthy citizens would readily pay sweepers to protect their long skirts or articles of clothing and to prevent contact with manure. A crossing sweeper was considered one step above a beggar. Many people took up the profession because starting the business would cost nothing more than a broom. The street sweeper job was a natural offshoot of the crossing sweeper.
We spoke of the profession related to the sending of telegrams but during the second half of the 19th century, telegram messengers were an essential component of communication. In Canada, after the General Post Office took control of inland telegrams, telegram boys became emblematic of the next era of communication, delivered by telegram messengers on bicycles. After 1946, however, telephones and other communication innovations steadily replaced telegrams. During the war years, the last person you wanted to see coming to your door was the telegraph messenger.
And so ends my brief look at lost or disappearing jobs from the past. I am sure that you will remember many more jobs to add to the list. Be sure to leave yours in the comments below.