People who wax nostalgic about the past are often forgetting what a disgusting time it was to be alive. Between the lack of indoor plumbing, disease-bearing vermin, and misguided medical practices, much of history makes the present day feel like a sterile utopia in comparison.
Living in a filthier world meant there was also a higher demand for workers willing to get their hands dirty in some repulsively creative ways. Here are six of the truly unsung heroes of history—the brave men and women who, some way or another, found themselves knee-deep in the jobs that no one else wanted. We salute you.
1. Leech Collector
It would have been bad enough to be the doctor administering (or the patient receiving) bloodletting à la leech, but the person whose job it was to collect the parasites had it much, much worse. Leeches were in high demand in Europe from the 15th century to the early 19th century, and those responsible for collecting them (mostly women) used a straightforward method: they offered up themselves as live bait. Wading into a marshy pond and allowing the critters to latch onto their bare legs was a quick way to collect several leeches at once with minimal effort. Blood loss was sometimes an issue, though, because it was necessary to wait for the worms to get their fill and have them fall off naturally—pulling them off might have damaged the teeth, leaving the leeches useless.
2. Groom of the Stool
While it may seem like one of the more degrading jobs on the list, "The Groom of the King’s Close Stool” was actually fairly respected in his time. The position evolved out of the position of the Yeoman of the Stool, created when Henry VI got a new chair (the stool) that held a chamberpot. The Groom was expected to carry the King’s portable commode with him at all times along with water, towels, and a wash bowl. In order to stay properly organized, he would also keep track of the King’s diet so as to anticipate his motions and plan his day accordingly. The position was often awarded to sons of noblemen and came with great perks and high pay. It was, after all, the royal office that gained the most intimate access to the King himself. Over the years the title evolved into the more discreet “Groom of the Stole” before it was abolished all together by King Edward VII in 1901.
3. Armpit Plucker
Humanity’s obsession with hairlessness may seem like a recent development, but the ancient Romans were way ahead of the curve. That marble-smooth look was all the rage among Roman aristocrats, and to get the full effect that meant ridding the body of those unfashionable underarm hairs as well. The job of an armpit plucker was to remove each and every hair from a client’s armpits. Alternate methods to plucking included applying hot pitch, using a dull, iron razor, or covering the pits in things like powdered viper and bat’s blood in the hopes the hairs would just fall off. These strategies were usually ineffective, so it was almost always the sturdy, bronze tweezers that got the job done. In addition to having to be comfortable with inflicting pain, the armpit plucker also needed to be strong enough to hold his clients down during the process.
Turning wool into cloth seems like it could be a romantic, rewarding task—at least until the cloth makes its way to the fuller, who then has the maddening job of stomping the impurities out of it for 8 hours straight. In the Middle Ages, the best way to break down the wool's natural grease was by trampling over it in a bucket full of an alkaline solution. The most readily available alkaline solution at the time was stale urine, which the fuller was also responsible for collecting from farms and houses. Fun fact: If your last name is Fuller, Tucker, or Walker, you’re probably a direct descendent of one of these sad sacks.
5. Body Snatcher
Not an invader from outer space, but rather a misguided fellow just trying to make a living. With the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century came a newfound curiosity concerning the human anatomy. Autopsies were suddenly a matter of interest to scientists, but since many people still believed in the resurrection of the corpse in the afterlife, fresh cadavers were hard to come by. That’s where the body snatchers came in. Although never a legal occupation, body snatchers were able to make a decent living by selling stolen corpses on the black market. The dirty part was the process they went through to obtain the body. One trick was to dig a hole in the head end of a fresh grave and drag the corpse out by tying a rope around its neck. An even sneakier method was to tunnel into the grave from a far away distance, thus leaving the outside to appear undisturbed.
6. Manual Scavenger
Out of all the jobs on this list, this one is definitely the crappiest. In India, manual scavengers were responsible for removing untreated human waste from the dry latrines that needed to be emptied every day. Tools at their disposal may have included brooms or tin plates, but often times they had nothing to use but their bare hands. Excrement was collected in baskets which workers would then carry on their heads for several miles as they traveled from latrine to latrine. This job can be traced back to the beginnings of the caste system's 3000-year-old history. Manual scavengers were part of a particular sub-caste in India, which means that it’s an occupation they were born into and unable to ascend out of. Perhaps the most disheartening thing about this practice is that it wasn't officially outlawed in India until 1993, and despite that, many manual scavengers still exist in the nation today.