CLOSE
Library of Congress
Library of Congress

7 Jobs We’re Glad are Obsolete

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Aw. You wanted to be a travel agent when you grew up? Or a fax machine salesman? I’m sorry. Advances march through our world at ever increasing speeds, closing buggy whip factories and menstrual belt distributors right and left. Take comfort that time has also swept away many horrible, dangerous, and stinky occupations. Here are seven jobs in which redundancy is a relief. 

1. River Pig

PriestRiver.gov

At the Lumberjack World Championship (yes, this is a thing and it is awesome), there is a competition called the boom run. It’s a near superhuman performance of speed and balance, where competitors cross a small lake by running across free floating logs. One hundred years ago, there were men who did a much more deadly version of this for a living. Also called River Hogs, River Rats, and Catty-men, these were the guys who drove logs down rivers to saw mills. If the logs jammed, which they did a lot, these men had to run out over the moving logs and use a pike to try and dislodge the dam. It was a ridiculously dangerous job. Nobody was surprised when a river pig died, and work certainly couldn’t be halted on account of it.  From Timber!: The Story of the Lumberjack World Championships: “If a river pig fell between the logs and drowned, his body might not turn up for days. Sometimes his only grave marker was draping his boots on a tree limb overhanging the river.” 

2. Herb Strewer

Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure we can appreciate how truly foul city life was in past centuries. It is criminal that the men who implemented large scale sewer systems for cities like Paris and London don’t have holy days dedicated to them—days when everyone kneels before their toilets and gives thanks for the lives the pipes beneath have saved, and the unbearable stenches they eradicated. Before them, all you had was the Herb Strewer. And she only worked for royalty. It was the Herb Strewer’s job, from the 16th to early 19th centuries, to walk around wherever royals were going to be, throwing cowslips, lavender, maudeline, and pennyroyal on the ground.  The goal was to thwart the ridiculous stench rising off the Thames, which was mostly made of poop in the olden days. The position of Herb Strewer soon became a decorated one, held by elegant ladies of court. The tradition was discontinued when Queen Victoria, the first monarch to have a functional toilet installed, ascended the throne. 

3. Dog Whipper

NCSU.edu

We’ve all watched enough cartoons to know that the Dog Catcher is the most soulless villain to have ever wielded a giant net at a scruffy canine antihero. But before dog catchers, and the pounds and shelters they work for, there was the Dog Whipper. The Dog Whipper was specifically employed by churches to keep dogs from overrunning the churchyard.  Some of these dogs had followed their families to the service (indoor dogs weren’t really a thing yet); some were strays wondering where the party was and if there was food. A Derbyshire parish records the Dog Whipper was paid 7 pence a year for their services in 1604, a number which had not increased by 1716. The position began to fade in the 19th century, with one of the last recorded Dog Whippers being appointed in 1856. As a bonus, Dog Whippers were often also employed as “Sluggard Wakeners,” and got to use their long-sticked whips to poke the heads of drowsing parishioners.   

4. Mudlark

VictorianLondon.org

Mudlarking hasn’t so much disappeared as it has evolved; it’s gone from the wretched last resort of the starving to a part-time hobby beloved by retirees. Back in the day, mudlark was a name used to describe people, usually children or the elderly, who would scour the shore of the Thames in 18th and 19th century London. They collected anything of saleable value: lost goods, copper, coal, iron, rope, anything that might fall into the river (or in some cases, swiped off a passing barge by an especially daring Mudlark who could swim). Today people enjoy mudlarking the Thames with a metal detector as a pastime, and have been known to uncover amazing finds. Of course it’s not the true mudlarking experience, as today’s scavengers miss out on all the dead carcasses (sometimes human), rotting garbage and sewage of the good old days. 

5. Powder Monkey

Library of Congress

Child labor was often a cruel necessity in a world where there wasn’t enough of anything to go around. Families needed the extra wages more than they needed their kids to have a childhood. A peculiarly adventurous addition to the drudgery of most child labor was the position of Powder Monkey. Unlike most child labor, a 13-year-old boy might convince himself this was something he wanted to do. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, mighty sailing ships were integral to the endless wars that circled the Western world. These ships had cannons, which needed to be resupplied with gunpowder after every fire. Powder Monkeys were chosen because of their speed and smallness. It was their job to keep running powder from the safety of the hold to the artillery behind the gunwale. A lot more exciting than farm work or woolen mills—but then again, farms and mills were less likely to be blown up by Napoleon.  

6. Sin-Eater

The Oddment Emporium

History is full of animal sacrifice, papal indulgences, and ritualistic confessions, all meant to leave a soul without sin. Sin-eaters were living sacrificial lambs, except they didn’t get slaughtered, and sometimes they got beer. In centuries past, these social outcasts performed a dire service to the people of England, Scotland, and Appalachia. They took the sins of the dead or dying onto themselves, leaving a clean soul ready to ascend to Heaven—a soul who, hopefully, would be much less likely to stay around haunting the living. To accomplish this, a piece of food, usually some kind of bread, was placed on the chest of the deceased, often with ale. There it absorbed the evil inside the body, and then was consumed by the Sin-eater. He was paid a small amount for his services, and the plates or bowls he’d used to eat were burned. Sin-eaters were considered an abhorrent necessity, as it was believed each sin they ate added to the corruption of their souls.

7. Gong Farmer

Wikimedia Commons

Proper waste management has done away with so many careers. Take the Gong Farmer. Seems nowadays nobody wants a man to come to their house at night, dig out all the feces under their privy, and carry it to a dump where it can recycled as fertilizer and building materials. But up until the end of the 19th century, these men were in high demand. They were only allowed to work at night (thus the more respectable term of “Night Man”), were liable to get diseases, and sometimes were required to live far, far away from all the non-poop-scoop people. But they were paid quite well (six pence a day during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign! That’s worth working chest deep in unspeakable horror, isn’t it?). To really enjoy the experience of the Gong Farmer, I recommend you go here, and have some fun catching poo in a basket. Watch out for the wee!

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
arrow
olympics
The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Getty Images
arrow
presidents
President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
Getty Images
Getty Images

Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios