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23 Obsolete (Or Nearly Obsolete) Jobs

Meredith Danko
Operators at the switchboard of the Magneto Exchange of the National Telephone Company.
Operators at the switchboard of the Magneto Exchange of the National Telephone Company. / Hulton Archive/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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Thanks to developments in science and technology, you can't add jobs like slubber doffers and night soil men to your resume anymore. Get the lowdown on those obsolete profressions and others in this list, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. Lectore

Factories used to have people who would read stories out loud in order to keep workers entertained. This practice of hiring “lectores” appeared in Cuban cigar factories in the 1860s. The lectores would audition for workers, and once hired, read what those workers wanted to hear—usually a combination of the news and literature.

2. Town Crier

You had to be pretty comfortable in front of a crowd to be a town crier, who would 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, and there are even town crier competitions for the real experts: Participants are judged on things like clarity, sustained volume, and demeanor.

3. Lamp Lighter

London's oldest lamplighter John Jennings extinguishing a lamp in Clerkenwell at 4.45 am.
London's oldest lamplighter John Jennings extinguishing a lamp in Clerkenwell at 4.45 am. / Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images

Another profession that peaked around the 19th century but can still be found today is lamplighting. In cities, people would use long sticks to light the gas street lamps at night, then put the flames out in the mornings. London still has a few lamplighters who manage 1500 gas lamps.

4. Knocker-Upper

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 knocker-upper would use a long stick to tap windows in the mornings to wake up residents. This was primarily a job in Britain and Ireland, and in some towns, it didn’t phase out until the 1970s.

5. Human Computers

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.

6. Dispatch Riders

Dispatch riders used motorcycles or other means of conveyance, like camels and horses, to transport important messages on the front lines.

7. Cavalryman

A British army cavalry soldier and his horse, circa 1875.
A British army cavalry soldier and his horse, circa 1875. / Hulton Archive/Robert French/Sean Sexton/Getty Images

Another surprising World War I and II 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 I had a cavalry. World War II featured a substantial cavalry charge in the Soviet Union, but that was probably the last major one in history.

8. Aircraft Listener

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.

9. Soda Jerk

Starting in the 19th century, soda jerk became a popular job. These were the 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 U.S. But the rise of fast food and drive-ins, along with some other things, ended the era of the soda jerk.

10. Milkman

A milkman delivering milk to a North London resident, circa 1926-1927.
A milkman delivering milk to a North London resident, circa 1926-1927. / The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Milkman was once a job all over the world, but it’s much rarer now: In the 1920s, most people had milk delivered directly to their doors. In 2005, just 0.4 percent of milk consumers got their milk that way, though since some grocery stores offer at-home delivery, we are reportedly seeing an uptick in milk delivery again.

11. Ice Cutter

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, 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 build up, cut it out, 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.

12. Toshers

In Victorian England, toshers spent their days (and sometimes nights) going through the sewers to look for anything that could be sold for money, like coins or silver spoons. Toshers carried big sticks that they used to sort through sewage to find the shiny objects they were looking for. 

13. Night Soil Men

Where there were no sewers, there were night soil men or jakes-farmers, 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.

14. Saggar Maker's Bottom Knocker

A saggar maker was a skilled pottery maker who made adjustments to the pottery while it was in the saggar, a vessel that held the pottery while it was in the kiln. The saggar maker’s bottom knocker was responsible for putting clay through metal loops to create the bottom of the saggar. Not many places made saggars; this job was most common in Staffordshire, England.

15. Telegraphist

A telegraphist was the person who operated a telegraph to get messages from senders to recipients.

16. Linotype Operator

Linotype machines changed the print world by making it much easier to create newspapers, and led to a new profession: linotype operator. The linotype machine contained molds for all of the letters in 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 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.

17. Switchboard Operators

Operators at the switchboard of the Magneto Exchange of the National Telephone Company.
Operators at the switchboard of the Magneto Exchange of the National Telephone Company. / Hulton Archive/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

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 suggested hiring women for the job. 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.

18. Slubber Doffers

Switchboard operator wasn’t the only job that children held during this time. In the U.S., slubber 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. It wasn't until the the 1930s that the U.S. passed child labor laws at the Federal level.

19. Pinsetter

Before bowling alleys had machines to reset the pins after someone’s turn, that was the responsibility of a pinsetter, or “pin boy.” Former pin boy Paul Retseck described the job to Scientific American like this: “You really had to work fast, or the bowlers would yell at you, ‘Hey get moving!’”

20. Elevator Operator

Another job that has largely been replaced by a machine is 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. By 1950 they had become commonplace.

21. Projectionists

Projection room, Capitol Theatre, Detroit, Michigan, 1925
Projection room, Capitol Theatre, Detroit, Michigan, 1925 / Print Collector/Getty Images

No one would blame projectionists for having beef with machines either. Films used to arrive at movie theaters in multiple reels, and the theater's projectionist 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. According to a projectionist interviewed by NPR, they often only need to come in one day of the week for an entire multiplex.

22. Phreneologist

For an interesting job in medicine that you could no longer get today, there’s the phrenologist. This person studied skulls and the bumps on people’s heads because it was supposed to reveal their abilities and character. Phrenology was a pseudoscience, and it became that racists latched on to. They believed that by comparing the skull shapes of people of different races, they could prove that Caucasians were the smartest and most evolved. These beliefs had no basis in fact.

23. Signalman

Finally, a signalman had several roles to keep railways running smoothly. One famous signalman was Jack the baboon, who worked at Uitenhage 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.

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