Obsolete jobs

17 of them, some with funny names, from "knocker-upper" (not what you think) to "gandy dancer." Plus, 7 other things worth your time.

I’ll be taking off Monday for Labor Day. This year’s holiday comes during a time when work is changing quickly.

With that in mind, I have a list of interesting, obsolete, formerly commonplace jobs that I’ve compiled over the years. The folks at genealogy and DNA-testing company MyHeritage came up with a few of them, so I added to it over time to create what's below.

Here are 17 jobs nobody (or almost nobody) has anymore.

1. Elevator operator

We'll start with this one, because my mom did this job in a department store when she was a teenager in Montreal. Other workers nicknamed the elevator operators “yo-yos.” I think she lasted one day, which sounds familiar. Also, they’re not 100 percent extinct.

2. Knocker-upper

How did people know when to wake up before alarm clocks, but after everyone lived within earshot of a rooster? They paid someone to knock on their door or window in the morning.

3. Video store owner

Not many people still trying to make a living in this field. There is one remaining Blockbuster video store, in Bend, Oregon. There’s also a Twitter feed—although it’s a parody. (It’s funny but NSFW, so you’ve been warned.)

4. Breaker boy

“A breaker boy was a coal-mining worker in the United States or the United Kingdom,” according to MyHeritage. “He separated impurities from the coal by hand.”

5. Factory lector

Lectors read aloud to factory workers. They're obsolete now of course because we have radios, the internet, headphones—and, come to think of it, a lot fewer factory workers.

6. Iceman

These workers cut large blocks of ice from frozen rivers and lakes during the winter and ultimately delivered them to customers. Obviously this was all before electric refrigeration.

7. Computer

Have you seen the movie Hidden Figures? Computers were workers, mostly women, who spent their days performing mathematical calculations—and then checking them. They were replaced by, well, computers.

8. Gandy dancer

“A gandy dancer was an early railroad worker whose job was to lay and maintain railroad tracks,” MyHeritage reports. “In England, they were called 'navvys.' Their nickname comes from the methodical dance movements of the railroad workers.”

9. Gas station attendant

I'm aware there are a few places where this job still exists. I even live in one of the two states where gas station attendants are legally required. So they're not quite 100 percent gone. Enjoy them while you can still occasionally find them.

10. Switchboard operator

Connecting phone calls once required people (mostly women) who manually moved phone cords into outlets. Author trivia: My grandmother did this job, working the switchboard for radio station CJAD in Montreal, gosh it has to be nearly 50 years ago.

11. Sleeping car attendants

In the days of overnight rail travel, attendants waited on long-distance rail passengers and set up their berths so they could sleep at night. It was hard work, and most attendants were African American men. It was also one of the few jobs reliably open to Black Americans in the Jim Crow era that offered a step up into the middle class.

12. Print journalist

Years ago, before the advent of the Internet, many journalists wrote exclusively for media entities that would print their stories on actual paper. These “newspapers” and “magazines” then had to be physically distributed to readers.

13. Book peddler

MyHeritage: “Book peddlers were traveling 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.”

14. Lamplighter

When streetlights were powered by oil, someone had to go out and light them at night.

15. Bobbin boy

“Bobbin boys worked in textile mills in the 18th and early 19th centuries,” according to MyHeritage. “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.”

16. Hemp dresser

Again from MyHeritage: “Hemp dressers worked in the linen industry separating the coarse part of flax or hemp with a hackle. They were also known as 'hacklers.'“

17. Scissors grinder

These folks went door-to-door, offering to sharpen scissors and knives. Now, well, I guess a lot of us just buy new ones.

Here’s to a nice weekend off, and not becoming obsolete too soon.

7 other things worth your time

  • New jobless claims fell below 1 million, which is good news for the economy. Howver, it comes with a bit of an asterisk because the Labor Department changed the way it collects and reports data between last month and this month. (CNBC)

  • Facebook has a new policy: no new political ads starting a week before Election Day. However the fine print suggests it might just be window dressing. (Business Insider)

  • Spooked by wildfires, some Californians are looking into buying their own fire trucks. (SF Gate)

  • MacKenzie Bezos is the world’s wealthiest woman. I’m still amazed at how calmly and quietly she and Jeff Bezos finalized their divorce, all things considered. (Daily Mail)

  • A vast majority of Americans, including 72 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats, say they are concerned that “the Covid-19 vaccine approval process is being driven more by politics than science,” and that the federal government would push an unsafe vaccine in order to have it available before the Nov. 3 election. (Stat News)

  • Germany’s economy minister promised Elon Musk the government will help in whatever way needed to get Tesla Inc.’s Berlin plant up and running as soon as possible. (Bloomberg)

  • This story on CNN about the vastly increasing number of evictions broke my heart, fro start to end and for everyone involved. Who has a solution for me?

Leave a comment

Some of this was in my column on Inc.com before. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com. And now, you can also get it by text at (718) 866-1753.

And of course, please share Understandably! Seriously, that’s the #1 thing we need right now, is for people who enjoy this newsletter to encourage friends and family to sign up as well. Thank you!

Share

One-click review and feedback: