22 Weird Old Jobs From 100 Years Ago

22 Weird Old Jobs From 100 Years Ago


Did you know that factories used to have
people who would read stories out loud in order to keep workers entertained? Hi,
I’m Erin McCarthy, editor-in-chief of Mental Floss.com. This practice, of
hiring lectores, appeared in Cuban cigar factories in the 1860s. The lectores would audition for workers, and once hired would read what those workers
wanted to hear—usually a combination of the news and literature. And that’s the
first of many weird old jobs from a hundred years ago that I’m going to
share with you today. Being a lector wasn’t the only job that
required public speaking skills. You had to be pretty comfortable in front of a
crowd to be a town crier. They would stand around and shout announcements,
like court orders. While they were extremely common for centuries before
losing their importance, there are still town criers today. Some places include
them in parades and ceremonies. There are even town crier competitions, for the
real experts. This year’s international town crier competition took place in
Holland, Michigan. Participants were judged on things like clarity, sustained
volume and demeanor. John Webster, who hails from Ontario, took first place.
Another profession that peaked around the 19th century but can still be found
today is lamp lighting. In cities, people would use long sticks to light gas
street lamps at night then put the flames out in the mornings. To this day
London still has five lamplighters who manage 1,500 gas lamps. Clearly, they love lamp. And now for another profession requiring
a long stick. Before iPhone alarms, people still had to wake up for work. And even
though mechanical alarm clocks were invented in the late 18th century, they
weren’t cheap. Starting around the Industrial Revolution, a person called a
knocker up or a knocker upper would use a long stick to tap windows in the
mornings to wake up residents. This was primarily a job in Britain in Ireland,
and in some towns it didn’t phase out until the 1970s.
Thanks to Joshua Pong, among others, who suggested that job in a comment on our
last episode. We couldn’t resist a job title like knocker upper. He wasn’t the
only one on top of his old jobs, though. A lot of the submissions were for jobs we
already had in the script, but we appreciate you all, too. Stay tuned til the
end of the video to find out what kind of facts we’re crowdsourcing for the next
episode. People who have seen Hidden Figures will be familiar with human
computers, people who were hired to do mathematical calculations by hand.
Probably the first great moment in human computing occurred in 1757, when French
mathematician Alexis Claude Clairaut had a few people help calculate when Halley’s
Comet would be visible from Earth. Machine computing wouldn’t fully
supplant humans until around the 1970s. Human computers were used during both
world wars, as were dispatch riders. These were people who used motorcycles or
other means of conveyance, like camels and horses, to transport important
messages across the front lines. Another surprising World War One and Two job
was cavalryman, a soldier who fights while on horseback.
Despite technology like guns, tanks and cars becoming more common,
every major army that fought in World War One had a cavalry, and World War Two had a substantial cavalry charge in the Soviet Union. But that was probably the
last major one in history. And before radar was a thing people in the military
still needed to know when enemy planes were nearby. This became a job, too: aircraft listener. The British especially had acoustic mirrors that enhanced
hearing and helped determine where an airplane was coming from. Some of these
mirrors still exist and are even being restored. The Japanese, meanwhile, used war
tubas. And yes, they’re exactly what they sound like. Starting in the 19th century
soda jerk became a popular job. These are people who created and served drinks
like malts, milkshakes and, of course, sodas. Before cocaine became a controlled
substance in 1914, it wasn’t unusual for soda fountains to dole out syrup with
cocaine and caffeine in it. Luckily, soda was good enough that even after removing
the cocaine, people still wanted to visit their local soda jerk. During the 1930s
and 40s half a million people had this job in the US, but the rise of fast food
and drive-ins, along with some other factors, ended the era of the soda jerk.
But speaking of people who provided milk: milkman was once a job all over the
world. It’s much rarer now. In the 1920s most people had milk delivered directly
to their doors. In 2005, just point four percent of milk consumers used a service
like this, though since some grocery stores offer at home delivery we are
reportedly seeing an uptick in milk delivery once again.
Until the early 20th century, most ice was made naturally by cutting into
frozen lakes, which led to a very cold job: ice cutter. People did collect and
store ice during the winter time in ancient Greece, Rome, Persia and China, and
then use it during the warmer months, but the ice cutting industry really ramped
up in the early 19th century. Ice cutters would find spots on frozen water where
there was ice buildup, cut it out, and then move it along to the storage and
delivery stages. But as cooling technology like refrigeration got better,
there was less and less need for manual ice cutting. For this next job we have to
go back to Victorian England, which was a little over 100 years ago. But we can’t
not talk about toshers, who spent their days (and sometimes their nights) going
through the sewers to look for anything that could be sold for money, like coins
or silver spoons. Toshers carried big sticks—really?? Another
job with a big stick?? But these were used to sort through sewage stuff to find
shiny objects they were looking for. Which leads me to my movie pitch: the
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles go back in time, end up in Victorian England, and
team up with the toshers to save the world. Hey! That’s another profession that uses
a big stick: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Where there were no sewers there were
night soil men, or jake’s farmers. These were people who emptied toilets, often at
night, because the waste couldn’t just be conveniently flushed away. The modern era
of sewage systems in the U.S. began around the mid-1800s. A very small number
of people could have had a job as a sagar maker’s bottom knocker. Basically, a
sagar maker was a skilled pottery maker. They could make adjustments to the
pottery while it was in the sagger, a vessel that held the pottery while it
was in the kiln. But the sagar maker’s bottom knocker was responsible for
putting clay through metal loops to create the bottom of the sagger. Not many
places made saggers. This job was most common in Staffordshire, England. Sagger maker’s bottom knocker sagger maker’s *Devolves into gibberish*
If you were good with technology there were a couple of job options in
the early 20th century. A telegraphist was the person who operated a telegraph
to get messages from senders to recipients. Linotype machines changed
the print world by making it much easier to create newspapers, and this led to a
new profession: linotype operator. The linotype machine contained mouds for all of the letters
of the alphabet. As the linotype operator typed, the letters would be
assembled into a line. The machine then used hot metal to create a strip of
metal that basically looked like a stamp of that line. When you put a bunch of
these lines together you could create a whole newspaper page. But it was
important for the linotype operator to type each line perfectly into the
machine, or else a mistake would be copied onto every paper. After the
telephone became more popular than the telegraph, telegraphists were
increasingly replaced by switchboard operators, who connected callers to the
telephone line of the person they wanted to talk to. At first the job was done by
teenage boys, but apparently they had bad manners so someone had the idea to hire
women. Emma Nutt is generally considered to have been the first female
switchboard operator, earning $10 monthly for 54-hour work weeks after she was
hired in 1878. Switchboard operator wasn’t the only job that children held
during this time. In the U.S., slobber doffers were children who changed the
bobbins in textile mills. Some kids swept mill floors and some even became
spinners themselves. Textile mill accidents resulting in death weren’t
uncommon, and these children were also more at risk of respiratory and
other diseases. Then, in the 1930s, the U.S. passed child labor laws at the
federal level. Before bowling alleys had machines to reset the pins after
someone’s turn, that was the responsibility of a pin setter or pin
boy. Former pin boy Paul Retseck described the job to Scientific American
like this, quote, “You really had to work fast or the bowlers would yell at you,
‘Hey! Get moving!” The machine started appearing in the first half of the 20th
century, but that didn’t stop people from yelling in bowling alleys. Another job
that has largely been replaced by a machine: elevator operator. Before
elevators had buttons, a human needed to run them with a lever, making sure they
stopped at the right places. They were also responsible for opening and
shutting the doors. In 1900, the passenger- operated elevator was invented, and by
1950 they had become commonplace. And no one would blame projectionists for
having a beef with machines, either. Films used to arrive at movie theaters in
multiple reels. The projectionists had to watch the film each time it played,
changing over the reels when they saw the cues, like a circle in the corner of
the screen. Nowadays, digital projection is primarily
used, meaning a single projectionist can go from theater to theater simply
pressing play and moving on. And according to a projectionist interviewed
by NPR, they often only need to come in one day of the week for an entire
multiplex. Finally, a signalman had several roles to keep railways running
smoothly. One famous signalman was Jack the Baboon, who worked at a train station
in South Africa. His owner, James Edwin Wide, was a signalman, but Jack eventually
learned how to pull the levers himself based on the toots of approaching trains.
He kept his job for nine years and it’s said that he never made a mistake. Our
next episode is about ways school was different a hundred years ago. We had a
ton of fun reading your suggestions for old jobs—even the ones we didn’t have
time to fact-check—and we’d love to hear your favorite facts about school around
the turn of the century. We’ll incorporate one of those facts into that
episode, coming out September 4th. Share your favorite facts in the
comments, and make sure you subscribe here so you don’t miss the episode. We’ll
see you then!