24 Jobs That No Longer Exist

Switchboard operators, circa 1936.
Switchboard operators, circa 1936.
William Vanderson, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Many jobs that were commonplace in the past are non-existent on resumes today. Some disappeared thanks to advancing technology, while some undesirable and dangerous professions were phased out due to improved labor laws. The jobs on this list were once solid options for a paycheck, and they either no longer exist—or are on the verge of disappearing entirely.


Ministry of Information dispatch riders on their motorbikes, circa 1940.
Ministry of Information dispatch riders on their motorbikes, circa 1940.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Dispatch riders were motorcyclists from World War I and World War II who delivered urgent messages between militaries. Wartime radio transmissions were subject to being unstable and prone to interception at the time, so quick and reliable motorcycle couriers were preferred during these pressing situations.


A soda jerk serves sweet drinks at a drugstore's soda fountain in 1950.
A soda jerk serves sweet drinks at a drugstore's soda fountain in 1950.
Doreen Spooner, Keystone Features/Getty Images

A job as a soda jerk was ideal for many young people during the 20th century. Youths could often be found handling soda spigots while wearing bow ties and white paper hats as they served up ice cream and soda drinks to order. Competition from fast food restaurants and drive-ins aided in the disappearance of the traditional soda jerk, but today there are many restaurants trying to offer their own spin on the beloved drugstore clerks.


An herb garden, circa 1533.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The 1600s weren't known for being an exceptionally clean time in human history. To combat the lack of hygiene, herb strewers were appointed to spread herbs and flowers throughout royal family residences to mask the scent of repulsive odors. Plants like basil, lavender, chamomile, and roses were regularly used by herb strewers.


Door-to-door salesman in 1951.
H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS, ClassicStock/Alamy Stock Photo

In the 18th and 19th centuries, some booksellers traveled door to door rather than setting up a brick-and-mortar location. Book peddlers would carry samples of the books and illustrations they offered to promote their products. They were often met with positive feedback, unlike other door-to-door salesmen at the time (of, say, sewing machines and snake oil-like pharmaceuticals). In fact, several states passed laws to prevent soliciting, but book peddlers were often an exception. Today, a few companies still try the door-to-door approach, but concerned residents do not view the cold-calls as positively as in years past.


Jabcz Hogg photographing W S Johnston in the first known image of a photographer at work, circa 1843.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The Daguerreotype was the first form of the camera available to the public. It was immensely popular throughout the mid-19th century and captured portraits of many celebrities and politicians of the time, like Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass. Daguerreotypists were responsible for capturing photos with their cameras and developing them through a chemical process. Eventually new, cheaper processes were introduced, rendering daguerreotypists obsolete.


A French telegraphist in 1917, during World War I.
A French telegraphist in 1917, during World War I.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During the telegraph's prime, wartime demand and high salaries made jobs as telegraph operators desirable. Telegraphists were also needed for dispatching between the mainland and those at sea. As forms of communication evolved, the telegraph and Morse code became outdated, but the quick relaying of information brought about by this invention immensely impacted human communication methods as we know them.


A medical consultation, circa 1807.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

You might not find job listings for toad doctors today, but back in the 19th century, the sick in England regularly relied on this folk magic. Patients with scrofula were said to be cured after wearing a toad (either living or dead) in a muslin bag around their neck.


Child pinsetters working in a bowling alley in Brooklyn, New York in 1910.
Pinsetters working in a bowling alley in Brooklyn, New York in 1910.
Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Before automated pin retrieval and set-up machines were invented, someone needed to remove and replace pins at bowling alleys between each turn. These pinsetters (often referred to as pin boys because of the young boys typically employed) would hang out at the end of the lanes and manually reset the pins. As with many rote, manual jobs, when automatic pinsetters began appearing in the first half of the 20th century, the bulk of these paid positions disappeared.


An Indian water carrier or
An Indian water carrier or "bhisti," circa 1870.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Water carriers (literally, people carrying buckets or bags of water from water sources to residents) had centuries of job security, but as indoor plumbing became popular in the West, this job began disappearing—a pattern that's still spreading to the rest of the world. In 2015, the BBC interviewed a traditional water carrier in India who recalled that even 30 years ago there were hundreds doing that job; he was the last one in his area and singled out the availability of tap water as making the job unviable. And in 2017, the South African network News24 talked to a water carrier from Madagascar who said that in a day she might haul 800 liters of water and earn $1.20.


Cavalry in 1800.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Cavalrymen are more often thought of as soldiers riding on horseback, but they've also ridden camels and elephants throughout history as well. Fighting by cavalry was a tactical method that gave soldiers enhanced mobility, height, and speed. World War I and World War II were the last major conflicts that relied on cavalrymen. Instead, today's warfare relies on the technology of armored vehicles, aircraft, and modern weapons, though as the recent film 12 Strong dramatized, soldiers and horses do still find themselves working together in many parts of the world.


Eva Duarte (center, in 1944) made her name as a radio actress before marrying Juan Perón and becoming the First Lady of Argentina.
Eva Duarte (center, in 1944) made her name as a radio actress before marrying Juan Perón and becoming the First Lady of Argentina.
Keystone, Getty Images

Radio drama was a leading form of entertainment between the 1920s and the 1950s. Being an audio format forced listeners to rely on music, sound effects, and dialogue to imagine the story being broadcasted. The rise of television brought an end to radio drama and the careers of radio actors, at least in America. In some parts of the world they remain popular, and the rise of podcasts has sparked new interest in audio dramas.


A knocker-up in London in 1929.
A knocker-up in London in 1929.
J. Gaiger, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Even if you hate your alarm, waking up to the beeping of a clock sounds appealing compared to paying a knocker-up to rap on your home. During the Industrial Revolution, people were paid to wake clients up for work by knocking on their doors and windows with sticks. Knocker-ups were mostly found in Britain and Ireland, but as alarm clocks became more accessible, the job was eventually put on permanent snooze—though it did hold on in some parts of Britain until the 1970s.


Early "human computers" at NASA.
Science History Images, Alamy Stock Photo

Long before laptops and PCs, people were employed as computers. These jobs were often held by women who worked in teams to figure out lengthy mathematical calculations. Human computers solved problems ranging from astronomy to trigonometry, but as to be expected, these jobs have been replaced by the computers we use today.


A clockkeeper works on London's Big Ben in 1957.
A clockkeeper works on London's Big Ben in 1957.
Frank Martin, BIPs/Getty Images

Throughout history, the job of a clockkeeper has evolved along with technology. In its early existence, the job involved ringing a large, centralized bell several times a day. Later, when the mechanical clock was invented, winding and upkeep of the city's clocks were necessary tasks to ensure accuracy. Nowadays, clockkeepers are nowhere near as important as they once were, but as The Turret Clock Keeper's Handbook [PDF] explains, "those who care for a turret clock will well know just how highly it is regarded in a local community not only for its grace in adorning a building but also for its timekeeping and its job of sounding the hours—despite all those quartz watches."


A projectionist in a town cinema, circa 1930.
A projectionist in a town cinema, circa 1930.
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

Another profession that has been fading out of existence is that of a film projectionist. Using film to project movies in theaters is becoming a rarity now, so there aren't many people who know how to work with film anymore. Having a film projector has become prohibitively expensive, and with the rise of digital projection, the act of spooling canisters of filmstrips is a dying art.


Young boys working the troughs in the mines of South Wales, circa 1910.
Young boys working the troughs in the mines of South Wales, circa 1910.
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

To separate impurities from coal, American coal breakers relied on breaker boys who ranged in age from 8 to 12. This job was often labor-intensive, and the public argued against letting children work in these conditions—but child labor laws were continuously ignored. This continued into the early 1920s until child labor laws began to be more strictly enforced and coal separation technology improved.


John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792) and British Prime Minister (1762-1763), served as one of Prince Frederick's lords of the bedchamber and became a privy councillor and groom of the stole for George III.
John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792) and British Prime Minister (1762-1763), served as one of Prince Frederick's lords of the bedchamber and became a privy councillor and groom of the stole for George III.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Everybody poops—even the former kings of England. These royals just happened to have an advisor, or a Groom of the Stool, to aid them in the process. Though it might sound like a crappy job, the position grew to be powerful and respected within the royal court since kings were known to confide in their Groom of the Stool. The position fell out of service with the rise of Elizabeth I, since the particular title was only extended to male monarchs (Elizabeth I had a comparable Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, as well as plenty of ladies-in-waiting and chambermaids at her beck and call). With King James I the position was revived and eventually became known as the Groom of the Stole. And although Queen Victoria's son, as prince, had a Groom of the Stole, the title did not continue into his reign.


A sound mirror that was built into the cliffs of Dover, England during the first world war.
A sound mirror that was built into the cliffs of Dover, England during the first world war.
LEON NEAL, AFP/Getty Images

The invention of radar technology vastly changed the way that militaries use air defense. Before World War II, the United Kingdom enlisted aircraft listeners. Men in this position would use concrete mirrors to detect the sound of enemy aircraft engines. The acoustic mirrors may have been effective in picking up sound, but they often fell short because enemy airplanes were too close to take preventative action by the time they were heard. Several of these acoustic mirrors have been restored as monuments.


Two lift operators in a London department store, circa 1916.
Two lift operators in a London department store, circa 1916.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The passenger-operated elevators that we have today are very simple compared to their manual predecessors that needed to have a trained operator. Instead of buttons, older elevators had a lever that would regulate their speed, and the driver would need to be able to land on the right floor. While there are still elevator operators around today, their job is much more focused on security.


A town crier in Wales, circa 1938.
A town crier in Wales, circa 1938.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Town criers were responsible for publicizing court orders, usually by way of shouting in the street so that everyone in the area was able to hear of the news. In order to gain attention, they'd shout "Oyez"—meaning "hear ye"—and ring a large handheld bell. In England they were known to wear ornate clothing and tricorne hats. Town criers may be disappearing from the payroll, but some can still be found competing with one another or announcing royal births in an unofficial capacity.


An iceman delivers blocks of ice in 1932.
An iceman delivers blocks of ice in 1932.
Francis M.R.Hudson, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Prior to the invention of refrigeration and freezers, people relied on large blocks of ice to keep their food and drinks cool. After letting a foot of ice build up on a body of water, ice cutters were charged with finding, cutting, and handling the slabs for delivery. The job put men at risk in the cold weather and freezing waters; as technology advanced, it was no longer necessary. Today, there are occasional attempts to mine glaciers for "artisanal ice cubes," but the job also clings on in an unlikely place—making ice hotels.


A boy carrying a torch through the London fog.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In London during the Middle Ages, link-boys could be found carrying torches along the streets at night. Some were privately employed, while others offered their lighting to pedestrians in exchange for a small fee. As streetlights became more widespread, the illuminating duties of link-boys became a thing of the past.


Switchboard operators at the Manchester Telephone Exchange, circa 1900.
Switchboard operators at the Manchester Telephone Exchange, circa 1900.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the early years of telephones, operators would have to connect callers to each other via a switchboard. This machine had circuits that would light up when a telephone receiver was lifted, and the switchboard operator would then physically connect the lines so people could talk. The profession became outdated once telephone technology advanced to the point that people could dial and receive calls without the middleman. Today the job ostensibly lives on (the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 80,000 people were switchboard operators in May 2017), but it's now more a customer service role to make sure callers reach the right department.


A vivandiere, a female soldier selling provisions and spirits, with the Allied forces during the Crimean War.
A vivandiére with the Allied forces during the Crimean War, circa mid-1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Women, called vivandières, served alongside the French army in wars like the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the term even popped up during the American Civil War. Vivandières would follow troops, tend to wounds, sew, cook food, and carry canteens for the soldiers—they were essentially mobile medics and maids, but the positions were considered ones of honor and service. The French War Ministry fully disbanded vivandières in the early 1900s before World War I.

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

Matthew Brady/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

10 Complicated Facts About Shaft

Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).

On July 2, 1971, moviegoers caught their first glimpse of John Shaft, the "black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks." Today, Shaft is considered one of the grandfathers of the blaxploitation genre—and it’s got one of the most recognizable soundtracks of all time. While Samuel L. Jackson has taken on the role for a new generation here are some interesting facts about the original film's creation and release. If you picked up on why Shaft and his associates call everyone "mother," you’re smarter than at least one unfortunate reporter.

1. A white newspaper reporter created Shaft.

John Shaft made his debut in Shaft, a novel by Ernest Tidyman. Tidyman was a reporter for The Cleveland News, The New York Post, and The New York Times before he began writing the Shaft series, which included seven detective stories. Along with John D.F. Black, he adapted his first Shaft book into the screenplay for the first film. He would later go on to write the screenplays for The French Connection (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973) as well as Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and the Shaft TV series (1973-1974). His work earned him an NAACP Image Award.

2. The studio wanted to shoot Shaft in Los Angeles.

Shaft was filmed entirely in New York City, which is clearly illustrated by the shots of Times Square and Greenwich Village. But it nearly wasn’t. In his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, director Gordon Parks recalled how he received word from MGM mere hours before he was set to commence filming that he was to return to Los Angeles and shoot the movie there. Apparently it was a budgetary issue, but Parks wasn’t having it. He flew back to the West Coast and essentially told the studio heads he would quit if he couldn’t shoot in Manhattan. "It has to have the smell of New York," Parks insisted. The director won out, and his nightmare of a Harlem in Hollywood was never realized.

3. Shaft's mustache was non-negotiable.

The Los Angeles fiasco was behind him, but Parks immediately faced another scare when he spied his star, Richard Roundtree, heading to the bathroom with a towel and razor. Producer Joel Freeman had asked him to get rid of his soon-to-be legendary mustache. Parks told Roundtree emphatically, “Shave it off and you’re out of a job.” And with that, the ‘stache stayed in the picture.

4. Gordon Parks put his magazine in the movie.

In the movie’s opening sequence, Shaft stops to talk to a blind newsstand vendor. The magazine Essence is prominently displayed—and that’s no accident; Parks helped found the publication and served as its editorial director for its first three years in print.

5. Bumpy Jonas was based on a real mobster.

Shaft spends most of the movie tracking down a kidnapped girl. She’s the daughter of Harlem crime kingpin Bumpy Jonas, and Bumpy was not a Hollywood invention. He was based on Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who ruled the Harlem crime scene from the 1930s through the 1960s. He had ties to the infamous murder of Dutch Schultz and mentored Frank Lucas, the notorious heroin dealer Denzel Washington played in American Gangster. Fictionalized versions of Johnson have also appeared in movies like The Cotton Club and Hoodlum.

6. Gordon Parks made a cameo.

Parks appears briefly in the montage of Shaft searching for Ben Buford. He’s the landlord with the pipe, who complains that he’s also looking for Buford, who owes him six months of rent.

7. Muhammad Ali's trainer had a bit role.

Drew Bundini Brown was a well-known member of Muhammad Ali’s entourage. He worked as an assistant trainer, and was famous for the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” bit he performed with Ali for the cameras. But when he wasn’t in Ali’s corner, Brown was busy racking up movie credits. His first was Shaft, where he played one of Bumpy Jonas's men.

8. "Skloot Insurance" was a nod to a crew member.

Shaft’s office is sandwiched in between Acme Imports Exports Inc. and Skloot Insurance. The latter is a reference to Steven P. Skloot, the movie’s unit production manager.

9. Parks had to explain what "shaft" and "mother" meant to a reporter.

When Parks flew to London to do publicity for the film, he ended up giving an impromptu vocabulary lesson. At a press screening, a confused British reporter asked the director what “shaft” really meant. Parks replied by smiling and sticking his middle finger up in the air, explaining that was “the most honest answer” he could give. But the reporter was persistent and followed up by asking why the characters called each other “mother.” Parks really didn’t know how to answer that one, but luckily, a woman in the audience swooped in. “You’ve heard of Smucker’s jam, young man,” she said. “Just snip out the first two letters and add an ‘f’ and you’ll get the message.”

10. Isaac Hayes was the first black composer to win an Oscar.

Isaac Hayes’s ubiquitous “Theme from Shaft” earned him a 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song. This win was historic for many reasons: For one, Hayes was the first black composer to score an Oscar. But he was also only the third African American to win an Oscar, period. Prior to 1973, the only other black Academy Award winners were Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind) and Sidney Poitier (Best Actor for Lilies of the Field).

This story has been updated for 2019.