When Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type to Europe in the 15th century, it revolutionized the world. No longer were scribes needed to create manuscripts by hand, one at a time. Mass copies of a document or book could be created with great speed. The early typesetters likely never dreamed their cutting-edge jobs would one day become obsolete, but those jobs vanished — just as innumerable other occupations have over the centuries, thanks to ever-changing technologies. Some morph into other careers. Others just disappear from history.
Based on projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top occupations currently slated to become footnotes in our history books include word processors and typists, door-to-door sales workers and mail carriers [source: Forbes].
Are there any jobs that will never go away? It's hard to imagine a world without farmers, police officers and teachers, to name a few seemingly critical occupations. And, sure, if you go to a place that's dedicated to preserving the past, like a museum, a living history site or even a Renaissance festival, you'll find modern-day people doing very old jobs. In terms of widespread employment, though, who really knows what lies in the future? Perhaps our food will be grown by scientists, our streets patrolled by robots and our children taught by computers. Let's look at some jobs, once quite important — even critical — that have faded from view, in chronological order.
Chariot racing was popular as far back as the 6th century B.C.E., making it one of the oldest forms of entertainment in the Roman Empire [source: McManus]. It was also the most popular sport in Rome. Pulled by horses, men would race their chariots around a Roman "circus" (actually, an oval track). Initially the races were reserved for religious festivals, but over time they were held whenever Roman magistrates or dignitaries sponsored them.
In ancient Rome, most chariot racers were slaves who were forced to race. However, if they were skilled at it, they could make enough money to eventually purchase their freedom. And just as with today's race-car drivers and jockeys, chariot racers (aka charioteers) had to be skilled to survive and thrive. Unlike the bulky, heavy military chariots, which afforded drivers a certain amount of protection, racing chariots were lightweight and a bit unstable; the charioteer basically had to balance himself on the cart's axle while driving [source: McManus]. Chariot racers died out along with the ancient Roman Empire. Unless, of course, you consider Charlton Heston, star of the popular 1959 movie "Ben-Hur," as the world's final charioteer.
A wet nurse is a woman who breastfeeds a baby who is not her own. The practice became common in Europe starting about 1000 C.E. and in a time of high maternity and infant deaths, these women were in great demand. Wet nurses nourished orphaned infants or fed babies whose mothers were too ill to do so. Many wet nurses also worked in "foundling" hospitals, where abandoned infants were left. Poor women used wet nurses because they had to keep working right after their babies were born. But wealthy women used them as well, because breast-feeding was considered an inappropriate activity for upper-class ladies [sources: Science Museum, Wolf].
Not any lactating female could become a wet nurse. They needed to be healthy, clean, strong and have a pleasant disposition. While wet nursing may sound like a helpful occupation, it actually had many negative consequences. Most babies who were wet-nursed were sent away to the countryside, where wet nurses typically lived. The babies would stay with the them for several years, and suffered a shockingly high mortality rate — as much as 80 percent — likely due to neglect [sources: Wolf].
The practice began to decline in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the advent of pasteurized and canned milk, as well as European government practices granting paid maternity leave to women. While wet nursing is mostly extinct, it still exists in a few pockets of the developing world in 2015, and there has been a small resurgence of the practice among the wealthy in America. This new breed of wet nurse lives with the family and is paid $1,000 a week for her work [source: Gordon].
In medieval times, suits of armor, rather than three-piece suits, were all the rage for men. These weren't typically purchased off the rack, either; instead, armorers meticulously crafted them.
An armorer would begin by taking a customer's measurements, and then making a wooden mannequin or wooden body parts to use for the fittings. Since steel was exceptionally rare in the Middle Ages, an armorer would typically take, say, an old, battered helmet or a dented breastplate to forge into new pieces. Over time, armorers developed trade and military secrets, which they passed down from father to son, as this was often a family business [source: Olexa].
Interestingly, armorers were given a lot of time to create their suits — often years. What the customers did in the meantime is anyone's guess. Over time, suits of armor were deemed passé. They were too heavy for foot soldiers. By the 18th and 19th centuries, breastplates and back plates were generally the only pieces being used, and the invention of muskets that could pierce armor put an end to them. Today those pieces are made of materials such as Kevlar, not steel [sources: Medieval Warfare, Olexa].
When you think about court jesters, they're kind of, well, funny. Can you imagine President Barack Obama employing a silly man to jump around and make him laugh when he's feeling down? Yet in medieval times, jesters did just that. (Obama might have to make do with Comedy Central instead).
Jesters, also known as buffoons, clowns and fools, were likely employed before the Middle Ages, although they're most often linked with that time frame. Back then, their job was to make sure the king and the members of his court weren't too stressed, and that they regularly amused. To achieve this goal, jesters performed some tricks and acrobatics, as well as told jokes. They dressed in a goofy fashion, donning tight pants with the legs made of different colored cloth, a ragtag coat and a hat resembling donkey ears or else with little bells attached. Jesters satirized anyone and everyone. While they were typically male, some women became jesters to queens [sources: Newman, Cotswalds].
Jesters were usually well-educated and considered beloved family members. They often wielded a fair amount of power in the court and were some of the few people who could openly criticize and mock the nobility of the period [source: Newman]. The last court jester in Europe was apparently Dicky Pearce, fool to the Earl of Suffolk. Pearce died in 1728 and was buried in the earl's family churchyard [source: Cotswalds].
During the Victorian era, wealthy women and men did not want to get a speck of filth on their fancy duds. And they certainly didn't want to trail their skirts or trouser legs through manure and other unsavory items commonly found on city streets and pathways. Entrepreneurial poor folks thus took up the trade of crossing sweeper.
Crossing sweepers were typically young kids, or elderly or disabled adults. Armed with brooms, they'd stake out their own crossing and, whenever wealthy people approached, sweep clean the path before them. The recipients of this service would bestow on them a small tip [source: Asmus].
While many rich people welcomed the presence of crossing sweepers, others found them pesky, especially if they were at every crossing. Sometimes fights ensued if a sweeper tried to encroach upon another's territory. This job, most prevalent in Britain, began to disappear in the late 19th century, most likely due to improved sanitation and the eventual replacement of horses in the street with automobiles [source: Asmus].
Today's version of the crossing sweeper could be the windshield washers — those people who jump into the street when you're stopped at a red light and begin cleaning your windshield in exchange for a little cash.
Before electricity and light bulbs illuminated our homes, cities and streets, gas and oil were used to light up our lives. In the early 19th century, gas lamps were first installed in the dark foggy streets of London and other cities, mainly as a safety measure. Someone had to light these gas lamps at night, then extinguish them in the morning. Thus the job of lamplighter was born.
To give you some sense of the scope of the job, there were tens of thousands of these lamps in London alone. In contrast, more-modest Lowell, Massachusetts, was home to nearly 1,000 in 1888. Lowell's lamplighters were paid about $2 per day to care for 70 to 80 lamps. A lamplighter's equipment included whale blubber (for use as lamp oil), wick trimmers and a ladder [sources: Asmus, Forgotten New England].
In London lamplighting was considered a prestigious job, passed down from father to son, though women sometimes did it too. The job was relatively safe; the worst hazard, perhaps, was gas buildup in the gas-powered lamps, which could blow a lighter off his ladder. Lamplighters often made extra cash on the side by capturing rare bugs attracted to the light, then selling them to insect collectors. As you might guess, the advent of electricity and light bulbs extinguished this once-noble career.
Pony Express Rider
One of the shortest-lived jobs might be the Pony Express rider, as the service only existed for 19 months. The Pony Express was a means of getting mail from America's heartland to the West Coast during the mid-1800s. Back then, communication between these areas was spotty and took a long time. So three men designed a system of more than 100 stations stretching between Missouri and California.
Some 80 Pony Express riders would race with the mail, changing horses every 10 or so miles (16 kilometers) at a new station. The journey lasted a mere 10 to 13 days in total, with the riders covering about 250 miles (402 kilometers) per 24-hour day. It was certainly hard work; those 80 riders required 400-500 horses [source: Pony Express].
The mail route traveled was difficult and not without many dangers (weather, animals and bandits), so riders earned $50 per month — a princely sum for the time. But the riders deserved the pay; only one delivery failed to reach its destination. Despite its efficiency, the creation of the Pacific Telegraph line, which stretched from Nebraska to California and made the first transcontinental telegraph possible, put an end to the Pony Express. It shuttered in 1861, yet it lives on American legend [sources: HistoryNet, Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum].
Ever think about how food stayed cold in the days before mechanical refrigeration? People had ice boxes in their homes that were "powered" by blocks of ice. And most folks didn't harvest their own ice for their ice boxes; instead they purchased it from others — either directly from ice cutters or from an ice deliveryman who came around the neighborhood weekly. Businesses like meatpacking and brewing, also bought blocks of ice [source: Purcell].
Ice cutters went out onto frozen rivers, lakes and ponds with shallow, slow-moving water because it formed solid, clear ice. First they'd use a horse-drawn plow to keep the area free from snow, which warmed it and retarded the freezing process. Once the water was sufficiently frozen, ice cutters would first score the ice — often into sections 2 feet by 6 feet (60 by 182 centimeters) wide — then cut it nearly through with a horse-drawn device. They made the final cuts by hand.
The blocks of ice were then floated through a precut channel to a spot where they could be removed and delivered. The job was not without its dangers; sometimes the ice cutters and/or their horses would fall into the icy water during the process. Once the ice was harvested, icemen delivered it to customers or straight to factories. Ice was harvested this way well into the 1930s, when mechanical refrigeration became the norm [source: Purcell].
Bowling is one of the top participatory sports in America. But no one likes resetting the pins after they've been struck by the ball. In the early 1900s, young men were hired to take care of this job. One former "pinboy" recalled handling four lanes per shift at a pay rate of 10 cents per game bowled. The job went like this: The bowler would roll his first ball. After it hit the pins, the pinboy would jump into the pit, clear the "deadwood" off the lane (the downed pins) and roll the ball back to the bowler. After the bowler's second roll, the pinboy would gather all of the pins as quickly as he could, step on a "pin bar" to raise small metal spikes that aligned the pins, then set them and, again, roll the ball back to the bowler. As you can guess, the job was tiring, low-paid and inefficient [source: Steel Cactus].
Gottfried "Fred" Schmidt eventually ended all this manual labor. He unveiled an Automatic Pinspotter to the public at an American Bowling Congress tournament in 1946. His contraption consisted of a cushion that stopped the bowling ball, a ball lift, a sweep that swept away the downed pins and a carpet that carried pins from the alley into an elevator, where they were delivered to a table and spotted for the next frame. That's pretty much still the mechanism used to day. By the early 1950s, the Pinspotter was well-established, and pin setters were obsolete [source: Oswald].
Party Line Operator
In the early days of the telephone (early to mid-20th century), access to this new technology was more common in large cities and less so in remote areas. When telephone service was extended to rural areas, phone companies often employed party lines that could be shared between as many as 20 homes to minimize the number of lines they needed to string (and maintain).
Party lines worked liked this: Every household that was part of a given party line had its own phone number and a unique Morse Code-like ring, such as four short rings or a long ring, short ring, long ring. If your mother was calling you, the phone would ring in everyone's home that shared your party line. But you'd know the call was for you because you'd recognize your "ring." Similarly, the other members of the party line would know to ignore the call because it wasn't intended for them [source: The Telecommunications History Group].
While you could call members of your party line by yourself, any calls you wished to place to people who were not on your party line had to go through a switchboard operator, who would connect your call. But with the advent of advanced phone technology, it became just as simple to establish one-person lines as party lines. With today's computer technology and voice recognition software there is seldom a need for a human to operate a switchboard at all. However, the jobs still exist at hospitals and some large corporations.
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Author's Note: 10 Extinct Job Titles
One job that will never go away: writer. Yes!
More Great Links
- Asmus, Geoffrey. "10 Of The Strangest Jobs In The Victorian Era." Listverse. Jan. 4, 2015. (Sept. 15, 2015) http://listverse.com/2015/01/04/10-bizarre-victorian-era-jobs/
- Baer, Drake. "17 Bizarre Jobs Our Ancestors Did That No Longer Exist." Business Insider. Sept. 23, 2014. (Sept. 14, 2015) http://www.businessinsider.com/weird-jobs-that-no-longer-exist-2014-9?op=1
- Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum."'Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860'." (Sept. 20, 2015) http://cprr.org/Museum/Pacific_Telegraph_Act_1860.html
- Cotswalds. "The Last Court Jester." (Sept. 19, 2015) http://www.cotswolds.info/strange-things/last-court-jester.shtml
- Forbes. "Top 20 Disappearing Jobs." (Sept. 20, 2015) http://www.forbes.com/pictures/lmj45ighg/top-20-disappearing-jobs/
- Forgotten New England. "Past Occupations: Lamplighters in Lowell, Massachusetts." Nov. 22, 2012. (Sept. 18, 2015) http://forgottennewengland.com/2012/11/22/past-occupations-lamplighters-in-lowell-massachusetts/
- Gordon, Claire. "The Return of Wet Nursing." AOL Jobs. Jan. 20, 2012. (Sept. 23, 2015) http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2012/01/20/the-return-of-wet-nursing/
- HistoryNet. "Pony Express." (Sept. 15, 2015) http://www.historynet.com/pony-express
- McManus, Barbara. "The Circus: Roman Chariot Racing." Vroma. July 2003. (Sept. 20, 2015) http://www.vroma.org/~bmcmanus/circus.html
- Medieval Life and Times. "Medieval Jobs." (Sept. 15, 2015) http://www.medieval-life-and-times.info/medieval-england/medieval-jobs.htm
- Medieval Warfare. "Armour." (Sept. 18, 2015) http://www.medievalwarfare.info/armour.htm
- Newman, Simon. "Jesters in the Middle Ages." The Finer Times. (Sept. 19, 2015) http://www.thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/jesters-in-the-middle-ages.html
- Olexa, Russ. "Steel For A Suit Of Armor." FF Journal. (Sept. 18, 2015) http://www.ffjournal.net/item/9537-steel-for-a-suit-of-armor.html
- Oswald, Alison. "Set Em' Up! Knock Em' Down! Bowling's Automated Pin Technology." Smithsonian. Aug. 12, 2013. (Sept. 16, 2015) http://blog.invention.smithsonian.org/page/6/
- Pony Express. (Sept. 23, 2015) http://ponyexpress.org/history/
- Purcell, Gene. "Ice Harvesting the Old-Fashioned Way." Big River Magazine. January 1995. (Sept. 20, 2015) http://www.bigrivermagazine.com/br.story.ice.html
- Science Museum. "Wet-nursing." (Sept. 15, 2015) http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/wetnursing.aspx
- Steel Cactus. "Set 'Em Up...Knock Him Down." (Sept. 23, 2015) http://www.steelcactus.com/PINBOY.html
- The Associated Press. "Early telephone operator recalls party (line) days." Jan. 18, 2010. (Sept. 15, 2015) http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2010/01/early_telephone_operator_recal.html
- The Telecommunications History Group. "Magneto Service & Party Lines." (Sept. 20, 2015) http://www.telcomhistory.org/vm/exhibitsSeattle4.shtml
- Tribunes and Triumphs. "Ancient Roman Jobs." (Sept. 15, 2015) http://www.tribunesandtriumphs.org/roman-life/ancient-roman-jobs.htm
- Wolf, Jacqueline H. "Wet-Nursing." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (Sept. 22, 2015) http://www.encyclopedia.com