1    Sep 2014117 comments

Labor Day: 10 jobs that are obsolete

Did your great-grandfather cut ice for a living? Perhaps your grandmother was a switchboard operator and connected calls from house to house?

There are so many professions that our ancestors once followed that are now extinct today.

Here are 10 examples of professions that no longer exist:

1) A Bear-leader was someone who led bears across the country to be used in a game called bear-baiting. The game was a popular form of entertainment in England until the 19th-century.

Credit: British Museum, London

2) Hemp dressers worked in the linen industry separating the coarse part of flax or hemp with a hackle. They were also known as hacklers.

Credit: Library of Congress

3) Bobbin boys worked in textile mills in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Their job consisted in bringing bobbins to the women at the looms, and then collecting the bobbins that were full with spun cotton or wool thread.

A bobbin boy in 1911. Credit: NARA – 523488.

4) Book peddlers were travelling vendors. Also known as "book canvassers," they went door-to-door selling books. For many rural Americans, this was their only way to obtain new reading material.

A 17th-century book peddler

5) A breaker boy was a coal-mining worker in the United States and United Kingdom.  They separated impurities from the coal by hand.

Breaker boys (Pennsylvania, 1884). Credit: George Bretz

6) A Gandy dancer was an early railroad worker whose job was to lay and maintain railroad tracks. In England they were called "navvys." Their nickname comes from the methodical dance movements of the railroad workers.

A railroad maintenance crew from Rawson, Ohio (c1920)

7) The iceman was someone who collected surface ice from lakes and rivers during the winter. It was then stored in ice houses year-round and sold in blocks as a pre-refrigeration cooling method.

Ice-cutters (Toronto, Canada; c1890)

8) Until the '60s in some places, switchboard operators connected phone calls from house to house by inserting phone plugs into the appropriate jacks. George Willard Croy became the world's first telephone operator when he started working for the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company in January 1878, while Emma Mills Nutt became the first female telephone operator when she began working at the same company on September 1, 1878.

Telephone operators in 1952. Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington

9) The knocker-up (usually an elderly man or woman) performed his duties as a human alarm clock until the 1920s. Using a truncheon or a stick to knock on doors or windows, his job was to wake people up in the morning so that they would get up on time.

Credit: Bacup Natural History Society

10) Lectors for factory workers would read books or newspapers out loud to the workers to entertain them while they worked.

Lectors entertaining factory workers

Did anyone in your family have a profession that is no longer around today? Let us know in the comments below!

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Comments (117) Trackbacks (0)
  1. My first full-time job was a Fax Machine operator for a law firm in 1989.
  2. I have a photo similar to the above of my great-grand uncle Judson Elijah Wesler working in a "crupper" factory in 1909. I'm not sure what job title he may have had in his work, but he and other young men were crafting cruppers: the leather strap that fastened to the saddle of a harness and looped under the tail of a horse to prevent the harness from slipping forward.
  3. My Mother, Agnes Smith, was a telephone switchboard operator when I was 7&8 yrs old.
  4. My mother, and my aunt, were "Stewardesses" on the B & O railroad when you were required to be Registered Nurse.
  5. Telegrapher
  6. I was a switch board operator after graduating from high school. I did that on and off for 24 years. The board was some what like the picture but, on a much larger scale. Made a good living.
  7. My grandfather was a stationary steam engineer in the days before there was electricity to drive machines. (1892 - 1932)

    The steam engines, drove fan belts, which drove lathes, milling machines, steam hammers, presses, etc. in a shipbuilding and engineering firm.
  8. My husbands Great Grandfather was a coal lumper in Sydney they even had a meeting hall at the Rocks that is still there where the Milson Point busses terminate called Mott Hall.
  9. jan my dad was a boot clicker for Morris's boot factory which was over the road from the original Lang park in Brisbane. he cut out the uppers for shoes by hand with a curved knife. they used to make the boots for the army.
  10. My first job in 1949 was a dictaphone typist. Letters were dictated to a cylinder, then with ear phones, you listened and typed. This was a means of replacing shorthand.
  11. My grandfather was a fireman on the L&N Railroad. It was his job to make sure the engine maintained steam pressure by stoking the firebox that heated the water into steam.
  12. Lamplighter.
  13. I had an ancestor that had an occupation listed in the US Census as a "carbiner" I have never been able to find out what it was, even using Google, etc.
  14. One of my grandma's sisters was an umbrella maker
  15. My great grandfather was listed in several late 1800s censuses as a "moulder".
  16. my grandfather was a barn silo salesman.
  17. A carbiner could be a carabiniere - a soldier who used this type of gun, also called a musket gun.
  18. My great grandfather was a coachman in London
  19. My paternal great grandfather was a coachman in London and my maternal great grandfather was a hooper.
  20. I wonder if it might have been one of the many misspelled words in Censuses and it might actually have been Carbineer a member of the military
  21. Bellows Boy or Organ Pumper.

    In the days before electricity, the pipe organs in churches were "winded" (i.e. provided with air pressure to allow the pipes to sound) manually by one or more - depending on how large the organ was - men or boys who pumped the bellows. Some pumps were hand operated and others were pedals which looked somewhat like present-day stair-climber exercise machines. In most small churches, this wasn't a paid position, but every church with a pipe organ - which was all that existed in those days - had to have one.
  22. My great grandfather was an engineer on a steam ship line. He stoked the coal engine. I worked as a telephone operator while working my way through college in the 1960's.
  23. My great great uncle was a "Carriage Maker" and "Wagon Maker" in West Virginia before the Civil War and in Detroit, Michigan up to 1905. I wonder how he fared with the invention of the automobile?
  24. My great great grandfather was a flax dresser all his life - does anyone know what that means?
  25. My great-grandfather and his father were millers--they built and operated windmills and watermills in Lithuania. After a few years, they would move and build a new one. Most of their brothers and cousins were also millers. Seems like a family occupation! Sorting through the church metrical records was very tricky since they also shared a lot of the same first names.
  26. My greatgranfather was a mattress stuffer
  27. One great grandfather was a coachman, the other was a hoopmaker.
  28. I remember as a child in the early 1950's that the insurance man used to come to the door and collect the insurance payments. There was an envelope hanging on the wall where my parents put in the cash. The companies used to sell 5 cents a week or 25 cents a week insurance policies.
  29. My grandmother was a 'handkerchief examiner' in the linen industry in Belfast. I believe it was a supervisory post
  30. My great grandfather was a Cooper. Coopers manufactured wooden vessels with metal bands, mostly wooden barrels.
  31. My great great grandfather, William Mathias Cross (born in Westminster, London, England, 1824) was a boot closer. This job involved sewing the uppers to the rest of the boot.
  32. How about "stenos" who took dictation from nearly all types of professionals then typed and re-typed and frequently re-typed again the resulting records or letters.
  33. Oh yeah, stenos always wrote in "shorthand"
  34. My great grandfather listed his occupation as 'gigger' on his civil war enlistment papers.
    From http://www.rmhh.co.uk/occup/g.html
    Gigger - Operated a gigging machine - a machine for dressing woollen cloth by subjecting it to the action of teasels.
  35. My great grandfather George Wiggins, was a "Moulder" in a brick field filling the moulds with pug.
  36. There was the Ice Man who delivered the ice door to door. The Bread man, the Coal man, The Milk Man, The Sheeny, (Scrap man), the Tea Man, all of these were usually daily delivery to the house. This kept the streets well perfumed. The Fruit Man was always around but was not a daily caller. All horse and wagons.
  37. One of my great grandfathers, George Willis, was a Clogger - a maker of wooden clogs which survived the damp of the cotton mills and the salinity of the salt mines better than leather shoes in 19th century Lancashire, England.
  38. My great grandfather was a tallow chandler.
  39. My first job was setting pins in a "duck pin" bowling alley. There was only 5 pins and the ball was about the size of a softball.
  40. The term 'knocker up' has a different meaning today. It refers to people who visit voters on election day to remind them to vote.
  41. TWO JOBS HAVE GONE. MY MOM'S FIRST JOB FOR MARSHALL FIELDS WAS AS A COMPTOMPTER OPERATOR.
    ONE OF MY FRIENDS HAD A JOB DURING WW11 WHICH NO LONGER EXISTS, EXCEPT FOR FUN...HE WAS A MULESKINNER. HE DROVE MULES AND HORSES FOR THE ARMY.
  42. My great-grandfather was a "corn weigher" (koringweger) in the Netherlands, mid nineteenth century.
    Weighed the crop when it was reaped.
  43. My grandfather was a tinsmith.
  44. An aunt of mine spent some time candling eggs for a chicken hatchery.
  45. Wheelwright (made wooden wagon wheels)
    Herb doctor (medicinal potions, drugs, salves, etc.)
  46. My father was a blacksmith into the late 1980s. His uncle was a harness maker into the 1960s. Having Amish neighbors meanth the harness maker still had work, but in his later days the shop work kind of closed down at 2:00 and the folding tables and chairs and pitch and pinochle cards came out as the regulars arrived to play a couple games of cards.
  47. I worked at the National Credit Office as an Ediphone operator around 1951. We sat in a "pool" maybe two dozen of us, listening to the dictated reports of account executives who were in a large pool of their own, on the other side of a large glass wall. Good listening via earphones & fast typing on Remingtons were essential skills. The reports were on cylinders, as someone above said.
  48. In Yorkshire the bobbin boys were called "Doffers" because they doffed the full bobbins from the Spinning Spindle.
  49. Frank sept 8th
    Could your ancester be any thing to do with the carbide industry. Carbide was used to produce carbide gas for car /bike lighting???
  50. The Jewish community had the equivalent of a "knocker-upper" called a "Shul klapper" who would wake people for morning prayers.

    While there are many occupations that led to last names, these jobs are often obsolete -- like fletchers, coopers, wainwrights, and chandlers.
  51. my ancester was a velvet groomer.Can only guess what thatwas.
  52. While in high school (1940s) I was a soda jerk. Are there any now?
    In the Army I was a Morse code radio operator stationed close to the "Iron Curtain"- the border between West and East Germany.
  53. track workers still call themselves gandy dancers, at least in the 1980s
  54. My GGGrandfather was a "Rat Catcher"
  55. My Wife's family were "lookers" out on the salt marshes. They looked after the flocks of sheep there.
  56. My gt. Uncle was a rabbit catcher
  57. I have a great great grandfather who was a Carpet Planner in the mid 19th century in England. Can anyone tell me more about the trade? No one appears to be able to define what it comprises. I also have another possible relative in Gloucestershire UK with the same trade at the same period.
  58. My great grandfather, and most of his sons, was a shoe maker, Another great grandfather was a cordwainer - no idea what this was!
  59. My great grandfather, Alexander Hay, was apprenticed as a COOPER as a young boy in Scotland. This was the making of wooden barrels or casks, usually for the whiskey distilleries.
  60. I have two in my Family Tree, one is a Brass Filer and the other a Button Filer. We only assume what the first one is but haven't a clue of the second one.
  61. My Great Grandad was a clay-pipe maker
  62. My great great grandfather was a wheel wright. He used to fix the spokes on wooden carriage wheels.
  63. My Grandfather was a boiler maker in a ship yard in Rotterdam until steamships became upsolete
  64. My Mother was a switchboard operator during WW2 with PacBell Co in Oakland CA, she retired in 1965.
  65. My ancestors owned the Waltke Soap Factory in St. Louis Missouri, the same company who invented Lava Soap. My ancestor collected waste fats to be made into soap.
  66. In fact "Navvies" in the UK were originally builders of canals, not railways and earlier than railway workers. It was short for "Inland navigators", and was because they were making it possible for boats to travel across land.
  67. One of the most famous extinct occupations in the British pottery industry was the "saggarmaker's bottom knocker".

    Saggars are used to hold and protect pottery during kiln-firing, and by placing various substances in a saggar it is possible to produce dramatic visual effects on the finished pottery.

    Producing saggars to the correct specifications required was a skilled job and needs a craftsman - the saggar maker. However, making the bases of the saggars is a less skilled job which can be left to a lesser craftsman, namely the saggar maker's bottom knocker, who makes the bottom of the saggar by placing clay in a metal hoop and literally knocking it into shape.
  68. When I was a kid there was a sissors grinder who would push his cart down the street with a little bell ringing. Ladies would bring out their sissors to be sharpened.he would stop and sharpen them with a grinder? on his cart.
  69. My great uncle was a "Time Keeper" for a steel mill in Ohio.
  70. I have a photo of my grandfather and several other men in a shed
    shearing sheep (cutting the wool off the body of the sheep).
    A machine provides power to a pair clippers each man uses to
    shear the sheep being held securely between the shearers legs.
  71. I was an installer for Western Electric in the 1960s. Installed and wired central office equipment for switchboards in a central location.
  72. I did solo switchboard operating part-time in early 1970's at a psychiatric hospital: Thoroughly enjoyed the evening shift.
  73. Tinner, Straw Bonnet Maker, Wireweaver
  74. My grand.dad was a rope splicer for shipping companies.
    He was taught as a youngster in a London Navy school for boys.
    That was about 110 years ago.
  75. My mother was a card puncher/typist for computer info in late 1960s.
  76. My Grandfather was a Bathtub Enameler in Scotland and moved to Canada when porcelan tubs entered the market and put him and others out of work
  77. Trasher & Stooker (not sure of the spelling)
  78. To Frank--Could the spelling be wrong? That happened a lot on the census information.
  79. I have traced a couple of ancestors, who were chimney sweeps. I appreciate that maybe some remain here and there in older cities, but it's very much a dying occupation, if not dead already.
  80. One of my uncle,s was a fellmonger,it has to do with furs & hides.
  81. My 5th great grand father was a shoemaker.
  82. My father (born 1914, died 1960) was a "tire wrapper" at US Rubber in Detroit in 1940. Sorry, no pix of him at the job but perhaps you can locate one.
  83. My father had ben a Bowling Pin Setter when he was a boy in the mid to late 1920's.
  84. i was once to be apprenticed as a Pattern Maker . this involved making , in wood , the shape of a moulding to be cast in metal .it was a highly skilled profession but has now been superseded by computer designing and in some cases by 3D photocopying .
  85. I remember the ice-man delivering in the 1940s. He had an insulated box on the back of his ute, and came running up the back steps with a ~20 cm long block of ice held in a pair of large tongs, which he would drop into the top compartment of our ice -box (=refrigerator). The melt water ran down a pipe to drip onto a watermelon that sat cooling under the house (this was in tropical Queensland).
    The milk-man also delivered. A young chap hurdled the fence with a pail of milk swinging in one hand, then sat on the top step to pour the milk into our jug.
  86. My mother was what was referred to in wealthy people's homes as a "Tweenie" or in between maid. My wife was a shorthand typist and I was in the printing industry as a hand and machine compositor, this position has now been taken over by desktop publishers or graphic designers.
  87. My birth certificate lists my fathers occupation as "hustler"

    This term was originally the man who harnessed the horses and hooked them to the freight wagons.

    As the freight business transitioned to motorized vehicles the term became 'yard man' for the men that solely worked in the freight yard staging and hooking trailers to the various trucks.
  88. My uncle drove trucks for the power company. There was a worker with a legendary nose for sniffing out gas leaks. He was often ordered to find Sniffer Kelly and drive him quickly to the site of a gas leak
  89. Have an ancestor who was a whitesmith according to UK census. A blacksmith dealt with iron, a whitesmith with tin, lead, etc.
  90. Perhaps the "Carbiner" was this - A soldier armed with a carbine; a carbineer; a musketeer
  91. My grandfather worked on a farming crew operating a thrashing machine. This was the machine before a combine. It thrashed the grain from the wheat stalk.
  92. My mother was a comptometer operator (before calculators).her sister a milliner and her father a tram and steam engine driver instructor In Sydney.
  93. My great grandfather made leather gloves for men so he took their hand print and created leather gloves for the well to do who worked in the mills in Homestead.
    My great uncle Mike delivered coal to homes. It would be shoveled into coal cellars which everyone had back in the 1920's-30's.
  94. Anybody remember movie theater ushers? Or the paperboy who delivered your newspaper or hawked them on the downtown corners. How about the cop who walked a beat? How about Linotype operators? Or newspaper proofreaders? Or card punch operators? Shoeshine boys in the barber shop? Or the infamous Soda Jerk? He might have worked in a "dime store" if you remember those but more likely behind the "soda fountain" in the neighborhood drug store. Then there was the lady who sold popcorn at the popcorn stand in the park or next to the bus station...I don't think her job had a name. I think she was married to a trolley car conductor. Not a single one of those jobs could be outsourced overseas.
  95. To Frank, September 8th, 2014 - 16:49

    Perhaps "carbiner" has something to do with carbines - i.e. guns?
  96. I have 3 ancestors who are listed in census records as Watch Motion Makers. They are all direct ancestors and were all named John Beavis and were all from successive generations born in 1741, 1771 and 1803. Nearby the other businesses all specialised in other facets of watchmaking.
  97. I was a lightining slinger (telegraph operator) on the Santa Fe when I was a kid.
  98. My husband's uncle was a stone napper , aged 9yrs. This is were the edges were knocked of a stone I think giving the stone square edges
  99. My Great Grandfather was a cooper in Walsall
  100. My Great Grandpa was a teamster
  101. I have a fourth great-grandfather that was a Marshman in Eastern England. He watched and made sure that the animals of the land owner did not get stuck in the marshy area by the coast.
  102. Would it be a rifleman?
  103. When I graduated as a Programmer in 1982 we had punch card operators. We would write our code on programming sheets and the punch card operators would type our code onto punch cards or tape reels; which were fed into the computer to be compiled.
  104. My grandfather was a farrier for the pit ponies in the Aberbargoed coal mine in South Wales, UK.
  105. I worked as telephone switchboard operator In 1971 to 1972.
    I had a split shift; 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. and 8:00 - 11:00 p.m.
    Loved the shift, as I was never an early riser.
    Had the whole day to do other things.
    Would have kept it, except my spouse returned from his tour in Viet Nam and we moved.
    The system was replaced soon afterward
  106. My Gt. Grandfather and his Brother leased a silk Mill in Bruton Somerset U.K. back in 1830. He listed his proffession as "Silk Throwster" in several Census'. This was the process of twisting the fibres from Silk worm cocoon fibres into threads. They employed up to 350 people. Mostly young women and girls.
  107. I have an ancestor who looked after Baobab trees in India. In Gujarati, this tree is called Chinch. Hence he was known as a
    ' Chinch Walla '
  108. I was a radiooperator in the merchant fleet in the 'sixties, sending and recceiving wireless messages in Morse code. Before satellite comunications existed, shortwave radio made it possible to send messages almost anywhere in the world from the high seas, because the radiowaves bounced back from the ionosphere and landed thousands of miles away where the receiving coastal stations were.
  109. @Frank. I wonder if the word carbiner was spelt incorrectly, as often happens in a census, and was actually meant to be 'carbineer', which was a soldier armed with a carbine (rifle). Can also be referred to as a carabineer. I had an uncle in South Africa who served in WW2 under the Natal Carbineers.
  110. My ancestor was a 'carman' but I don't know what it is - there were no cars back then
  111. My ansestors who lived in Bedfordshire were Straw plaiders. Straw Plaining is a method of manufacturing textiles by braiding straw. This was used in the manufacture of hats and ornaments.
  112. My great grand father was a Saddle maker
  113. My Gt Gt Grandfather was a Treenail Maker. They made "treenails" - long wooden pins used to hold large wooden joints together - esp. in the shipbuilding industry. He was the first of the Thomas family to work in the shipyards in Chepstow, in the early/mid 19th century, the last being my uncle who was a draughtsman when units for the first Severn Bridge were built there.
  114. My great-great-great-great grandfather Valentin Mohr was a "salzausweiger" (salt weigher) in the town of Laubenheim, Germany. He regulated the buying and selling of salt, ensuring that people received the correct weight of salt when they made a purchase.
    Neil Renaud (mother's maiden name Mohr)
  115. My brother was a bobbin boy in the 1960's in a plant where man made fiber was made.
    I also remember the gas lighter that went along the street and turned on the gas and light the gas for the street lights.
  116. Kelvin Jenkins is almost right on 14th September regarding Navvies. , but the word does not come from 'inland navigators'.
    It comes from 'navigation cuts' - the navvy was a man who worked on a 'navigation cut' which was the dry cut made through the landscape in order to create a canal. All very logical when you consider that that was precisely what navvies did - they were the labourers who cut through the land to create the canals; they never actually navigated the canals, because by the time the canals were filled with water, the navvies were long gone and on to the next 'navigation cut'. Hence Kelvin's interpretation is not quite correct, although he has the connection with canals is spot on, but he had not quite got the explanation correct.
  117. Hecklers. In this country at least, Scotland, the lads who worked with a 'heckle' (originally a giant metal comb held by hand to comb out the strands in cotton, flax etc) were called 'hecklers'. The verb from this was 'heckling'. A flax dresser was simply a 'heckler' who worked with flax. The dressing was the separating out of the strands preparatory to working with the resultant material.
    The Scottish usage - heckle, heckler, heckling - is important because it is the original of the heckler who disrupts a political meeting.
    Hand heckling became obsolete in the nineteenth century as heckling machines were developed which rendered thousands of hand hecklers redundant.
    Prior to this development the hand hecklers in the mills in Dundee in the very early nineteenth century, were renowned for their political activism and had developed an early craft trade union organisation. To the mill owners and the governing classes they were trouble, and it is from the trouble-making and disruption caused by Dundee hecklers at political meetings that the political usage of heckle, heckling, heckler, derives.
    However, with their great strike in the early nineteenth century in Dundee, demanding higher wages etc., the hecklers totally blew it because it spurred on the mill owners to mechanise and make them all redundant. Well they had to do something about those bloody 'hecklers' didn't they?

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