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Weird Jobs That Don’t Exist Anymore

A lot of people are fascinated by the past, with shows like Downton Abbey breaking records and setting the stage for a whole new crop of content about the past. One part of the past that is conveniently looked over, though, are the jobs people did. Sure, you have the traditional shop keepers, cooks, or aristocrats (in the case of Downton Abbey), but you don’t talk about the film boxers, lamplighters, or hostlers… all real jobs that no longer exist. 

Whether through technological innovation or the job simply falling out of fashion, we’ve rounded up some of the weirdest jobs – that real humans actually did – that don’t exist anymore.

Livery-Stable Keeper

Before the time of cars, people got around on horseback. Many people owned horses, but not many owned a lot. What if you needed more horses for a short period of time? You could reach out to your local livery-stable keeper. It’s like car rental, but for horses. The keeper would own a large stable of horses that customers could rent for short periods at a time.

When it was most common:

Late 1700s and 1800s.

When and why it died out:

As cars came more into society, people needed to rent horses less and less. This job still exists in small ways, but it’s more for entertainment than robust transportation. 

Gandy Dancer

Whenever railroads needed to be maintained, it was done by a “section hand” or “gandy dancer.” These laborers made sure the tracks didn’t have creases in them, turns on the railway were smooth, and other general maintenance tasks so that trains could run on time and without accidents.

When it was most common:

Late 1800s and early 1900s.

When and why it died out:

Modern technology has made it so that train track maintenance could largely be done by machines. Gandy dancers fell out as major job source, but railroad maintenance – even today – has some elements still done by humans.

Film boxer

Not too long ago, when you went to the movie theater you would be watching an actual film projected onto a screen. That film had to get from the movie producers to theaters around the world, and it was the film boxer’s job to make sure that the film was properly packaged, marked, stored, and shipped out. Without them, your Friday night movie would never have happened!

When it was most common:

Mid-1900s.

When and why it died out:

Digital cameras and digital videography made film unnecessary in the movie industry. While this career has died out, some movie buffs still prefer old fashioned film, so the practice hasn’t died out entirely.

Badger

There’s an image of the past where farmers sold their goods right to consumers. This has even come back into fashion with the idea of “farm to table.” But the reality is many farmers worked with Badgers – the people who bought goods and sold them at the market. Some say this is where the phrase “to badger” comes from, since Badgers would often push for a sell and could become annoying to patrons.

When it was most common:

1800s and 1900s.

When and why it died out:

Two factors caused Badgers to lose their jobs: farmers markets where farmers sell right to customers and industrial-scale farming. The work of a Badger didn’t totally die – people still sell food at markets. It’s just done in a different way.

Rat Catcher

Throughout modern history, cities have dealt with rats. There are so many small crevices for rats to hide and breed in. Plus, with few natural animal predators, the population of rats can grow a lot. Enter rat catchers. Their job was to catch rats for many purposes including keeping food stores safe, stopping the spread of infection (rats are usually disease carriers) and even for food for other animals like snakes.

When it was most common:

During the Black Plague in Europe and again in the 1800s and 1900s.

When and why it died out:

General cleanliness in cities plus an increase in rat trap products made this role obsolete.

Lapidary

If you’ve ever marveled at the beautiful old jewelry in a museum, chances are that’s the work of a lapidary you’re seeing. Lapidaries are the people who turn raw gemstones into beautiful shapes for jewelry and other uses.

When it was most common:

Throughout modern and ancient human history.

When and why it died out:

New machines for cutting gemstones made this career all but obsolete. However, a rising artisanal movement suggests the job may not be dead yet — many people are willing to pay a premium for hand-carved gemstones, meaning in some way a lapidary could still make a good living.

Switchboard operator

When the telephone was invented, it was a centralized system. Every single phone was connected to a local switchboard. When you picked up the phone, you’d tell the switchboard operator who you were trying to contact. They’d plug you into the right pin in the switchboard and you could have your conversation. Then the next time you picked up the phone, you’d repeat the process to get connected to the next person.

When it was most common:

Early 1900s.

When and why it died out:

Telecom technology improved dramatically, and the switchboard process slowly became automatic. Now, with mobile connectivity, everything is done through telephone towers and automated switchboards.

Lamplighter

Until the advent of electricity, cities had lamps that were lit by fire. Lamplighters had the task of making sure that these lamps were lit every night when the sun went down and put out every morning when the sun came up. Even in the times of gas lamps, some cities still had lamplighters to ensure everything was in working order.

When it was most common:

Late 1800s.

When and why it died out:

Electricity meant that street lamps didn’t need fire. This not only made the cities brighter, since electricity was brighter than fire, but also safer due to there being fewer open flames.

Lathmaker

Lathes are machines that shape wood, metal, or other materials. Now powered by machines (and built by other machines), in the past lathmakers were a special kind of woodworker that built the then-wooden lathes to shape different materials. These sawing machines were common during the industrial age since it was one of the only ways to cut up building materials.

When it was most common:

Late 1800s and early 1900s.

When and why it died out:

Modern machinery and factories meant the machines could be produced without artisanal help. However, some custom lathes are still made by lathmakers due to the rising artisanal movement, which prefers hand-made goods over mass-produced items.

Signalman

Since the earliest days of the railroad, trains used signals to show which direction they were going or as a means of averting crashes. Signalmen were the people who changes the signals on the railroad so that a train could turn, change tracks, or signal an issue. They often lived in small railway towns so they were close to their posts.

When it was most common:

Late 1800s and early 1900s.

When and why it died out:

New technology made it so signals could be sent electronically, all but eliminating the need for signalmen. Some signalmen got promoted into other positions in the railway, while others left for other work.

Log driver

In the industrial age, manufacturing increased on an industrial scale. That meant large forests were being cut down with centuries-old trees and transported to wood processing plants. Log drivers were teams of working men that transported the logs well before any vehicles were powerful enough to do the job. They’d roll large tree trunks carefully out of the cutting areas until it could be properly removed by horses and buggies.

When it was most common:

Late 1700s and 1800s.

When and why it died out:

As vehicles gained in power, it came unnecessary for a team of people to move trees – trucks could do it for them.

Linotype operators

When the printing press evolved in the 19th century, the system worked by pressing each page of the news onto large pieces of paper. A linotype machine operator was the person who entered text on a 90-character keyboard, which was then put through a complex process called hot metal typesetting in order to be ready to press on the page. The pressman (another job) would then ensure that each page was pressed onto paper and put into the right order for distribution.

When it was most common:

Late 1800s up to the 1970s.

When and why it died out:

This profession died out due to new technologies by the 1980s. New innovations brought about new ways to print newspapers and other printed works, and many linotype operators trained on these new technologies and continued in their work.

Shoe peg maker

One old method of making shoes involved using a large wooden peg to form the structure of the shoe. The people who made shoes in this style were called shoepeg makers. This process was time consuming and could only be done by hand, so shoepeg makers had a lot of business. Everyone needed shoes, after all.

When it was most common:

Early 1800s.

When and why it died out:

New fabrics, materials, and methods of making shoes made the shoe peg method fall out of fashion. The new methods were more comfortable, durable, and fit better for an increasingly indoor society that didn’t work as much in fields.

Chamber maids

Before modern plumbing and toilets, people used buckets underneath chairs with holes in the middle. Unfortunately, somebody had to clean out the buckets – that’s what a chambermaid did.

Often a young girl (sometimes as young as 10 or 11), chamber maids would go into the bedrooms of their employers and empty the chamber pots whenever they were used. This could mean multiple times a day per person, making it a pretty gross job.

When it was most common:

From Medieval times all the way to the 1800s.

When and why it died out:

Thankfully, the modern plumbing system made it so that people who needed to use the bathroom used toilets – thus making chambermaids unnecessary.

Mudlarks

Foraging was a common method of making money in the Victorian Era (the late 1800s). Mudlarks were the people who foraged in rivers on the outskirts of town looking for anything they could find – jewelry, money, clothing, or even scraps that could be sold or reused. Most of the time, mudlarks were the poorest of the poor, as there was little to no welfare or social services in this day.

When it was most common:

Mid-1800s.

When and why it died out:

Social services and a societal movement away from having poor people foraging for food made mudlarking unnecessary (or frowned upon so people stopped and looked for other ways to earn a living).

Knocker-up

Before everyone could afford clocks – they were very expensive as clocks were hand-made until relatively recently – knocker-ups were people you hired to wake you up at a certain time. They’d wake up at the crack of dawn and check clocks in pubs or in main squares. Then they’d use a long knocker and tap your window at your allotted time and collect their pay. It was usually a job for a young boy, similar to what a paper route might be today.

When it was most common:

Late 1800s.

When and why it died out:

Alarm clocks (and clock availability more broadly) made this job obsolete.

Hostler

When you go to a hotel today, you get offered valet car service. In the 19th century, you got hostler service – a valet for your horse. This person would clean, feed, and care for your horse while you were a guest of the hotel. That way you could conduct your business and not worry about your horse until you were done.

When it was most common:

Late 1700s and 1800s.

When and why it died out:

Motor cars came onto the scene and made travelling by horseback less necessary. However, you may still have this service offered at equestrian retreats for horse lovers.

(Wood) Hacker

Despite the name ‘hacker,’ these folks had nothing to do with breaking into computers and robbing banks. Instead, this work was some of the earliest processing jobs in lumber. Wood hackers took tree stumps and processed them into semi-refined lumber that would go to lumber yards. The wood would then get cut into whatever custom piece someone needed for building homes, furniture, and more.

When it was most common:

1800s and 1900s.

When and why it died out:

Modern technology enabled wood processing to be done on a much larger scale without as much manual labor. Some wood hackers became machine operators, though.

Computers (People)

If you’ve ever seen the movie Hidden Figures, then you already know what this job is. Before digital computers, “Computers” were people who did long-form calculations by hand. They would spend hours working to solve one important formula by hand, doing calculations to tens or even hundreds of decimal points.

When it was most common:

Mid-1900s.

When and why it died out:

Modern computing technology made it so digital computers could do the same calculations in far less time. Many “Computers” became managers of the technology that replaced them, while others moved onto other jobs. However, some people still prefer to do calculations by hand or to make sure the computer is right, since even technology can make mistakes.

Phrenologist

Phrenology was one of the earliest kinds of psychology. The practice attempted to learn more about the human mind and believed that the shape of the skull had something to do with it. Famously, phrenologists used to try to predict someone’s intelligence based on their skull shape, claiming certain people smarter or dumber by nature if they had bumps or dents in certain areas of their head.

When it was most common:

Late 1800s.

When and why it died out:

As medical science – psychology in particular – gained more knowledge, phrenology died out as an pseudo-science that did not provide real insight.

Gong Farmer

As gross as it sounds, people used to throw their waste into the streets. That meant food waste, human waste, and excess water from the house… all in the street. Eventually, that waste collected somewhere in the low ground, in what was called a privy or cesspit. The gong farmer was responsible for digging it all up, so the cesspits didn’t overflow, and finding somewhere else to put the waste. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

When it was most common:

1400s to 1600s.

When and why it died out:

Modern sewage systems and sewage treatment plants made this work less and less necessary over time. Eventually, the role died out as whole cities moved onto modern sewage systems.

Are you looking for a job that isn’t going anywhere soon? The next page shares non-technical jobs that are going to be in high demand in the 2020’s.

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