Many of us have had a job we’d rather forget, with a not-so-pleasant manager we’d be happy to never see again. But if we think we’ve had it bad, let’s take a moment to be grateful for the jobs that are no longer in existence. Modern life has waved goodbye to a fair few weird and wonderful professions.
We all hate the sound of our alarm clock on a cold, rainy morning, but it could be worse. You could actually be the alarm clock. This was the early morning routine of a knocker-up, a profession in England and Ireland during the Industrial Revolution.
Before we all had alarm clocks to tear us from our beds, it was the responsibility of a knocker-up to ensure that workers in the town were awake on time to get to their jobs. They usually carried a long pole that enabled them to tap on the windows of the sleeping workers until they roused. It was common for mangers to hire a knocker-up to be certain that their employees would be at work on time. But it also posed a great mystery: who woke the knocker-up?
Back before organised sewage systems, the large quantities of human waste from the city of London ended up straight in the Thames. That, along with the general uncleanliness of the city, meant that London wasn’t exactly the nicest smelling place to be. This led to herb-strewing becoming a profession in England during the 17th century.
The job of a Royal Herb Strewer was usually held by a woman, who was required to distribute herbs and flowers with pleasant scents throughout the living space of royalty in an attempt to mask the foul smells that overpowered the city. The herb-strewers would be present at royal events, complete with extravagant gowns and baskets to carry their herbs. Although the profession was never formally ended, there is no longer any worker with the title of Royal Herb Strewer. The last monarch to hire someone for the job was George IV in 1820.
8. Powder Monkey
A powder monkey was the term used to describe young boys employed on warships. It was their responsibility to ensure that the crew had a constant supply of gunpowder, risking their lives from the smoke and fires caused by battles.
The worst part? The boys weren’t always there by choice. Not only was the job highly dangerous, but some of the youngsters were kidnapped and forced onto the ships by gangs of sailors who had a shortage of staff. Whilst their age and size made it easier for them to move around a ship undetected during battles, transporting gunpowder to the cannons was a high risk job in itself.
7. Log Drivers
Imagine moving logs all day, every day. That very well could have been your job if you’d have been around during the 1800s. Before portable sawmills, logging was limited to only a few options. The job of a log driver was to use the current of a river to move logs sawn from the forests towards mills. The method was popular during the early days of logging, but by the mid-1900s, railroads were being developed in most towns, which meant there was less need to use rivers as a way of transportation.
Although the profession died out in the 20th century, the practice of log driving lives on through popular culture. A Canadian folk song by the name of ‘The Log Driver’s Waltz’ was written about a young woman who marries a log driver, which even led to a short animated film being released in 1979.
6. Ice Cutter
There was a time when people who wanted an ice cold drink couldn’t simply retrieve a few ice cubes from their fridge freezer. If you needed ice back then, you’d have to hire a specialist. Ice cutting was the job of icemen during the winter months, when the ice had built up enough on the water surface to be harvested. The groups of workers would divide the surface of the ice into cubes and begin cutting up to 1500 tonnes of ice per day.
The development of refrigeration technology meant that ice cutting ceased to be a necessary occupation. However, there is a museum in Maine dedicated to the historic practice of ice harvesting, and still has an annual tradition of cutting ice from the local pond. But the only professional ice cutters we’ll find in the industry today are those who sculpt ice as an art form.
Back before the technology we so take for granted today, people were employed to do all those jobs that are no longer needed, like setting the pins in bowling alleys, for example. Pinsetters, or pinspotters, would reset the knocked down pins and return bowling balls to the players. Often being part-time only with little pay, the job was usually reserved for teenage boys. Apparently, it wasn’t a dull a job as it seemed. For young guys, it was actually seen as quite a step up the career ladder.
The automatic pinsetter was developed by factory worker Gottfried Schmidt in 1936, and became the norm for most bowling alleys in the 1950s, resulting in a rapid decline of manual workers needed for the job. However, there are still an extremely small number of places that keep the tradition of having an actual person in charge of the pins, rather than a machine.
Grave robbing goes back as far as the 1300s, but from the 16th century, there was another set of people who dug up the dead, but for a completely different reason. Resurrectionists, or body snatchers as they were sometimes called, were hired by autonomists to exhume bodies for the purposes of medical research. There was an increase in the gruesome profession when the establishment of the Murder Act 1752 in Britain enabled the corpses of executed murderers to be exhumed for dissection.
Despite the Act, resurrectionists generally weren’t accepted by the public, and there were various efforts made to stop their work, such as night guards for cemeteries and iron bars over grave sites. A further Act was put in place after the famous crimes of Burke and Hare, who murdered innocent victims in order to sell their fresh corpses. The Anatomy Act 1832 made it legal for unclaimed bodies to be used for medical research, meaning there was no longer such a great need for resurrectionists.
The word ‘lector’ usually makes us think of university lecturers and public speakers, but in the 1900s, a lector was actually a form of entertainment. A factory lector was employed to entertain workers in cigar factories by reading out loud, usually newspapers and sometimes novels. The profession started in Cuba, later becoming more prominent in New York and Florida.
Life in a cigar factory was mostly manual labour, including the rolling of cigars by hand, so the lectors proved to be good for the moral of workers, and the employees themselves would pool together to help pay the lector’s salary. Lectors had a huge influence on the workers, providing an education for them through their reading. But it didn’t always go down well with the factory owners, which led to the removal of lectors in favour of radios during the 1920’s.
2. Leech Collector
Leech collecting is a profession that dates back as far as the medieval times, and yes, it’s exactly what you think it is. In the early 1800s, leeches were highly popular for their medical uses and were sought after by surgeons all across Europe. The rise in demand for the little bloodsuckers led to an entire profession that was dedicated to collecting them. How? By becoming leech bait.
The workers, mostly women, would wade into ponds in search of the creatures. Attracting them was simple: show them a bit of skin. The women would ensure they bared their legs whilst in the water to entice the worms. Like all jobs, it came with its risks. A high number of collectors became infected from allowing the leeches to latch onto them. There was such a craze over leeches that the collectors even got a few poetry mentions from William Wordsworth.
Ever wondered whether that extra cookie you stole from Grandma’s house as a child would higher your chances of going to Hell? Well, if you’d have been alive in the 19th century, you wouldn’t need to worry, because there was someone to take care of that for you. The job of a sin-eater was to take on the sins of a recently deceased person. If the person had died suddenly, without having a chance to confess their sins, a sin-eater would ‘consume’ the person’s sins for them, allowing their soul to go to heaven. For a price of a sixpence, of course.
A sin-eater would complete a ritual in which they would consume food, usually bread, and a beverage that was either placed on the body of the deceased, or waved above it, thus digesting the sins of that person’s soul. The profession wasn’t approved of by most churches, and the last known sin-eater died in 1906.