HISTORY | JOBS OF THE PAST
5 Weird Professions That Exist No More
Have you ever wondered how people used to wake up before alarms existed?
When we think about “if today’s jobs are going to be obsolete someday,” the first thing that comes to mind is “how can they be?!”
Well, history has enough and more proof to show you how dynamic jobs are, and the professions that existed just a couple of hundred years ago might seem alien to you.
It’s just mind-blowing how fast things are changing. And only God knows for how long the traditional jobs that are ubiquitous in today’s world are here to stay.
It might just be a matter of time before history repeats itself. And with the advent of cutting-edge technology, many jobs might be in the danger zone already.
So, without any further ado, let’s get into the title of the article and see some weird jobs that are now a thing of the past.
1. Knocker-upper (or knocker-up)
How would you wake up on time in a year where either alarm clocks were not invented or were unreliable? Have you ever thought about that?
Enter knocker-uppers. Worry no more.
There legit existed a job of knocker-upper and as the name suggests, their job was to wake sleepyheads, so they were on time. And people paid for their service.
This job that doesn’t even exist was a respectable job back in the day. It employed many people, mostly elderly men and women.
If we trace back to how this job came into existence, we land in the time of the Industrial Revolution.
In those days, the alarm clock was still a new thing. Only a handful of people had it. So, it was expensive, and often unreliable too.
And the advent of the Industrial Revolution meant that now some people had to wake up early and rush to their workplace as they now worked in shifts.
This created a demand for people who would wake other people on time. And that is essentially how knocker-uppers came into existence.
Would you have believed that even the alarm clock made tens of thousands of people unemployed had I not told you this story?
Now that I have told you about knocker-uppers, this might sound a little less strange. And a bit more obvious.
Those involved in this job had to ensure street lights were properly and timely lit and also extinguished in the morning.
This is the early 19th century and there is nothing like electric light bulbs or streetlights yet. Not even electricity is a known thing.
It is the time when gas lamps are first installed in London, among other cities. It was mainly for safety reasons.
And hence this job of a lamplighter was born.
So, yes, you can say electricity killed this job.
3. Switchboard Operators
Back when telephones were still a new thing, there existed professions like switchboard operators and party line operators.
For your reference, it’s the mid-20th century and access to telephone services is becoming more accessible. Before, only the urban population used telephone services, but as it got spread in the rural and remote areas, the need to lay string lines increased.
And to decrease the cost of laying down lines and their maintenance, telephone companies took into use what’s called party lines.
In a simple definition, it’s nothing but a single telephone for up to 20 houses. (And today a single family can have half a dozen phones.)
Every household was a part of a specific party line and had a unique number and a Morse-Code-like ring.
So, if someone calls you, say your mom, it’d ring in all those houses which fall in your party line, but you’d recognize it’s for you because of its “ring”. And other households would ignore it, as they’d also know it’s not a call for them.
That was a mouthful and a lot to digest, wasn’t it? But we have yet not gotten to the part of what switchboard operators did. Let’s get into it and keep it short, shall we?
For the sake of understanding, let’s continue with the above example. Suppose your party line has 20 households, and you want to call any one of them. That you can do it by yourself.
But if you wish to call someone who is not from your party line, your call would be routed via a switchboard operator.
I don't know the hell that was done, so here’s a Wikipedia definition: switchboard operators connected calls by inserting a pair of phone plugs into the appropriate jacks.
With the advent of new technology, it became equally inexpensive to lay a one-person line as it was to lay a party line.
And then automation and advancements in phone technology first replaced the job of switchboard operators in local dialing and eventually in international or long-distance business, too.
This might sound like a no-brainer if you reason it as people still needed refrigeration before the advent of the refrigerator.
That was essentially their job—cutting ice and selling it to people who’d rather buy than cut it themselves, for any reason, like the river might be a long walk.
Plus, it was also a dangerous job, often done in extreme conditions.
Many farmers and icemen did this job of ice-cutting in the winters. They would store this ice in ice-boxes and it was sent ice-house for further transportation and selling.
A large ice trade existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, until mechanical refrigeration displaced it. It was also seen as an export business at one point.
Imagine what our reality would look like had refrigeration technologies not advanced. We would have been buying ice, just as we buy ice-cream.
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the main concern of medical schools was cadavers.
Nineteenth-century United Kingdom saw a huge deficit in cadavers to use for instruction and training. What was the reason behind this?
The judicial system. Schools in England gathered their cadavers from the judicial system. Dead bodies of criminals who were sentenced to death fulfilled the demands of these medical institutions.
But the 19th century saw the maturation of the law and judicial system. While in the 18th century, people were executed for petty crimes, the 19th century witnessed a huge decline in execution.
An average of only 55 people were executed per year, while the demand for cadavers stood at around 500 bodies each year.
This gap gave birth to the profession of a resurrectionist (or a resurrection man).
This was illegal, of course. But it was a lucrative business. Both the parties involved benefitted as the institution got the corpses for a lot cheaper than the legal way, and the sellers kept all the money without the involvement of any middleman.
This business became so profitable that extreme cases began to appear. Innocent and healthy people were murdered to fulfil the demand, as it was easier to kill than steal dead and buried bodies, both time and effort-wise.
This caused a lot of chaos and unrest in the United Kingdom and eventually, the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed to protect civil justice and peace of mind.
And quoting the University of Texas Health Science Centre, here is the story thereafter that led to the happy dissolution of the Resurrection Man:
The Anatomy Act required the licensing of anatomy teachers and regulated the supply of cadavers for medical research and education by giving physicians, surgeons, and medical students legal access to unclaimed corpses, especially of people who had died in prison or workhouses. It also allowed a person to donate his own or next of kin’s corpse, if there were no objection by other kin, in exchange for burial paid by the anatomy school. This completely dissolved the need for Resurrection Men.
Now that you know what kind of jobs existed just 200–300 years ago, that don’t today, what are some of today’s jobs you think might become obsolete in the coming future?
I’m (finally) starting a new Substack where you’ll receive a fascinating story delivered to you every Sunday, starting this week. To not miss out, subscribe here.