20 Outdated Occupations That Have Bitten the Dust

Remember switchboard operators, rag-and-bone men and video store clerks? Robots may be stealing jobs left, right and center nowadays, but plenty of professions have vanished over the years as society has changed and technology has progressed.

Here are 20 occupations from way back when that no longer exist.

Factory lector

From the late 1800s onwards, Cuban cigar factories hired lectors to read mainly left-wing books, newspapers and so on to workers while they rolled away. The custom spread to the US in the early 20th century, but was banned in the country in 1931 by factory owners, who were concerned the lectors were spreading communist and anarchist ideas.

Knocker-upper

Back in the days when alarm clocks were pricey and unreliable, knocker-uppers would do the rounds each morning and wake factory workers by banging on their front doors with a heavy stick or similar implement.

The profession, which was common in the industrial cities of Britain and Ireland during the 19th and early 20th centuries, didn’t actually die out until the 1950s in some places.

Night soil collector

This most revolting of occupations called for a weak sense of smell and super-strong stomach. Night soil collectors had the unfortunate job of removing human waste from people’s privies.

The profession was prevalent in 19th-century America, Europe and Australia before widespread sewerage systems were built, and still survives nowadays in some countries, notably India and Japan.

Doffer

Child labor was sadly a fact of life in many Western countries up to and during the early 20th century. Doffers, for instance, were nimble-fingered young boys who worked in textile factories removing and replacing bobbins from the spinning frames, and were a common sight in American mills until 1933, when child labor was finally outlawed.

Rat catcher

A profession straight out of the fairy tale books, rat-catchers used everything from ferrets and terrier dogs to poison and traps to control vermin in villages, towns and cities, but were often accused of covertly raising and releasing rats to boost their workload. These days, their job has long been taken over by pest control technicians.

Breaker boy

Another Victorian profession that has thankfully disappeared, coal breaking entailed separating impurities from coal by hand, and was mainly carried out by children. The work was dangerous and children often cut and burned their hands, and some even lost their lives.

Public condemnation grew in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and by 1920 the cruel practice had ended.

Muffin man

Do you know the muffin man? In the UK, this cheery hawker would go from house to house at breakfast time carrying a tray of freshly-baked English muffins on his head. The practice continued well into the 20th century in some cities. This photograph of a London muffin man was taken in 1924.

Buggy whip maker

This ill-fated occupation of yesteryear is often cited by economists as a classic example of how technological progress can kill an entire sector. The buggy whip industry was thriving in the 1890s with thousands of companies producing the essential riding accessory, but had all but vanished by the early 20th century as the automobile replaced the horse and carriage.

Ice cutter

Before air con and refrigeration became widespread, ice cutting was big business in North America and Europe. Cutters would harvest tons of ice during wintertime, which would be stored in hay-packed icehouses, then distributed in towns and cities during the heat of summer. At its peak in the late 19th century, the ice trade employed 90,000 people in the US alone.

Iceman or ice woman

Ice-cutters harvested the ice, but the blocks were delivered to homes and businesses by icemen, and to a lesser extent icewomen, as you can see from this photo, which was taken in New York during World War I. The trade fell into decline not long after and had all but died out by the 1950s, but ice delivery still happens in Amish communities, which shun electricity.

Gas lamplighter

In the late 19th century, the towns and cities of Europe and North America were teeming with gas-powered lamps, and it was the lamplighters’ job to fire them up each evening. Gas was replaced by electricity in the early 20th century, but several cities have retained a limited number of gas lamps, including London, which boasts 1,500 lamps and five part-time lamplighters.

Caddy butcher

Caddy butchers specialized in selling horsemeat which, believe it not, was actually pretty popular in the UK and US up until the 1940s.

The meat, which was always considered a cheap and somewhat undesirable alternative to beef and venison, has since become completely taboo in English-speaking countries, where it’s almost impossible to snap up these days.

Whale meat seller

Likewise, you won’t find any New Yorkers in 2018 who regularly chow down on whale meat, but the delicacy was once enjoyed as an affordable treat by the Big Apple’s poor – this photo was taken around 1920.

As the denizens of the city became more prosperous, the meat fell out of favor and the trade, in the US at least, has long been consigned to history.

Stoker

A stoker or fireman was the unlucky individual tasked with tending the fire in the boiler of a steam train, ship or saw mill. The job entailed lots of shoveling coal in horrifically high temperatures, and was not for the faint-hearted.

Mercifully, the introduction of electric locomotives, ships and so on in the 20th century rendered the profession obsolete.

Telegraph operator

The electric telegraph was invented in the 1830s and remained the fastest way to communicate over long distances until it was superseded by the telephone in the 20th century.

The telegraph operator sent and received the messages, and had to be fluent in Morse code. In return, wages tended to be generous and competition for available roles was fierce.

Telegraph or telegram boy

In Europe and North America, telegraph or telegram boys were employed to deliver telegrams, which had to be sent or received at a post office or telegraph company like Western Union.

The boys, who were usually in their mid to late teens, delivered the messages on foot or by bike, and later via motorcycle. The practice lasted into the 1970s in some parts of the UK.

Pinsetter

Like telegraph or telegram boys, pinsetters were mostly teenaged boys who worked in bowling alleys across North America re-setting pins and collecting balls. The occupation died out rapidly following the invention of the mechanical pinsetter in the 1940s, but a tiny minority of bowling alleys still use manual pinsetters.

Log driver

Log drivers risked life and limb to move huge quantities of timber downstream in the days before widespread railways and logging roads. Log driving survived in some parts of North America right up until the 1970s, when environmental legislation outlawed it, and is still carried out traditionally on a small scale in northern Spain.

Used-teeth salesperson

For much of the 20th century, access to decent dental treatment was limited, particularly in Europe, and many people who couldn’t afford to visit the dentist resorted to buying second-hand false teeth when their pearlies had rotted away.

The foundation of the NHS in 1948 ended the icky trade in the UK, though it carried on in other parts of Europe for a while longer – this photo was taken in Amsterdam in 1955.

Switchboard operator

“Operator, please connect this call” was a frequently uttered phrase back when phone companies had manual switchboards. The operators, who were mostly women, inserted a phone plug into the relevant jack to connect a call.

Automated switchboards were widely adopted from the 1960s onwards, and by the 1980s the profession had all but vanished.

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17 Comments

  1. Jane L Polley says

    And aren’t we thankful that these occupations are no longer needed !!

  2. Benjamin H. Campbell says

    One of the biggest trades of all – Type setters, linotype operators, and many that composed a newspaper operation when hot type needed to be cast to form the copy. In addition, thousands upon thousands of little mom and pop job shops to produce letterheads, etc. There were literally millions employed in the newspaper printing industry and the job shops that are no longer needed. At it’s peak the Birmingham News where I worked as a type setter for many years needed at least 300 workers daily in the composing room. When lithography came to the industry, the paper could be produced with only about 15 workers.

  3. Janet says

    Thank you for putting this piece together. I had heard of some of these occupations but having the pictures along with the information was quite charming and informative!

  4. Debbie says

    My father delivered telegrams for Western Union when he was a teenager. His father died in the flu epidemic of 1918-19 and he needed to help provide income for the family. In the 1960s, I worked a switchboard at my boarding school.

  5. Leslie says

    Enjoyed these photos and stories very much!
    I can remember when I was very young, living in a suburb of Chicago, and picking up the phone to the voice of an operator: “Number, please”.

  6. Linda says

    Re the knocker-uppers. I was born in 1951 in the north of England (county of Yorkshire). At the time of my birth my father had just begun a seven year apprenticeship with British Ropes and I can clearly remember the knocker-upper still coming around when I was six or seven or perhaps even older. Only he didn’t knock on the door but had a longer stick to reach up and tap on my parents’ bedroom window, the idea being not to disturb the whole household. However, we lived in a new, post-war council estate and the walls were quite thin. 🙂

  7. Shirley Mickey says

    I was a long distance telephone operator, for the Pacific Telephone Co! Operators were for out of town, and you dialed “O”, and for out of state, you had to ask for “long distance” and get transferred to me! My branch handled Hollywood, and the movie stars! Some of them were really fun, and some were NOT! We’ve come a long ways!

  8. wildduck says

    The rat catchers are making a comeback in some US cities. Pretty sad that they are coming back.

    1. Velocity says

      Thanks for the democrat liberal mayors & councilman there cities they represent are trashed due to their liberal ways!

      1. Rebecca Dewhirst says

        Ratcatchers may be coming back thanks to the liberal left in liberal cities and states that let Filth litter run their streets

      2. Pamami says

        Maybe you should learn how to compose a complete sentence to get your idea to be understood. You have done a great job of showing how ignorant you are. And by the way, your dumb comment has nothing to do with the subject being discussed.

  9. Steven J Hopkins says

    My grandfather on my mother’s side was an iceman in southeastern Ohio back in the day.

  10. Leftist says

    I was a switchboard operator until late as 1989 even. Both old style/mechanical patch chord and the newer computer extension one’s.
    They should also include Teletypes in this category. Teletype operator is basically extinct now. Radio teletype, teletypes, I did it in the military. But, he private sector used them as much too. Teletype Operator.

  11. Dave says

    I remember, and knew, some TV repairmen, who bought homes , raised families, and put their children through college, doing that skilled trade. Now, if the TV goes bad, it’s cheaper to just throw it away, and get a new one!

  12. Karen Magallon says

    I was a 411, Directory Assistant Operator at Illinois Bell for 3 years in the early 1970’s. We sat with phone books in the front and side of us. The book in front had the frequently asked for numbers for restaurants ,stores,and shows. At that time ,in the Chicago suburbs, calls from certain towns were routed to different stations. So, we got the same people calling all the time. In 1975-76 they called the old operators up to work the books while they re taught operators to work with computers. My husband had to constantly wake me up because I would keep saying “ Directory Assistance” over and over in my sleep.

  13. Laura says

    Our TVs could usually be fixed with one tube replacement that cost around 10 dollars. Stations turned off at midnight with the Star Spangled Banner. This was the 50’s. If you were lucky you got 3 networks-no color.

  14. russell santangelo says

    And the night soil collectors in India use it to fertilize their fields. A lot of these food products are sold in dollar stores in the U.S.

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