Retro Jobs That Millennials Don’t Even Know Existed

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By: Riley Brown | Published: Jan 23, 2023

Are you sick of the 9 to 5 routine? Do you want to try something different? If there are no job ads in the classifieds for the roles you seek, your occupation may become obsolete. However, don’t despair! Many people have gone through the same thing, and in the following pages, we’ll introduce you to the jobs they once performed. 

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Some of these occupations will seem bizarre (toad doctors and gong farmers, we’re looking at you). Others have simply been taken over by robots and computers. What they all share in common is the simple fact that they went out of fashion so long ago that most millennials have never even heard of them. Let’s dive in!

The typesetter

Before the advent of desktop publishing, page layouts had to be created by hand and loaded into a printing machine. To print the daily newspaper in the late 19th century, every letter and space had to be meticulously selected by hand and put on a metal typesetting machine.

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The 1960s saw the introduction of phototypesetting, which changed the industry forever. The streamlined procedure was a natural success, which resulted in the typesetter role being rendered unnecessary.   

Town crier

Today, we can learn about the latest news headlines immediately thanks to the media, radio, and social media available to us. Before the advent of the internet and its ability to deliver global news at the touch of a button, headlines were disseminated in a rather quirky manner. 

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Town criers roamed village streets, ringing a bell and shouting important information. This practice began in the 1700s and continued until the early 20th century. 

VCR repairer

Video cassette recorders are likely recognizable to anyone at least 30 years old. Before the advent of Blu-ray discs and streaming services like Netflix, movies and boxed sets were only available for purchase or rental on videotape. 

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Those tapes would become stuck on occasion, and children often used the hole on the VCR as an imaginative mailbox, sticking all manner of objects inside. If you wanted to keep watching your favorite programs in a continuous loop, your only choice was to call the VCR repairman.

Video store clerk

The position of video shop clerk disappeared around the same time VCR repairers became obsolete. When it first opened, Blockbuster functioned like a lending library for VHS tapes and, eventually, DVDs. The employees there had film expertise on par with the literary knowledge of librarians. 

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During its peak in the mid-2000s, the business had over 60,000 employees working throughout the United States and across the globe. However, streaming services eventually rendered Blockbuster and all of its staff obsolete.

Switchboard operators

Nowadays, when we dial someone’s number, we connect to them directly. However, this wasn’t always the case. A switchboard operator once had to connect calls manually before automated exchange became the standard. Before the 1960s, a light on the operators’ switchboard would go on whenever the receiver’s cradle was raised.

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The operator would then establish communication with the caller using a system of wires inserted into a jack on the control panel. Just ordering a pizza would require so much work!

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Film boxers

Gathering and packaging film canisters in preparation for either storage or shipment was part of the duties of a film boxer, which was an entry-level position. In today’s world, someone performing the job might submit compressed files over email rather than manually packaging them 

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The current job title for this position is “digital imaging technician.” Back in the 1990s, however, it was an entirely manual job. Prospective filmmakers who wanted to get their foot in the door at a production firm might try their hand at becoming film boxers. 

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Book peddlers

There was a time when book peddlers would knock on your door. This was, of course, before mail order and courier services made it possible to get books delivered straight to your door. Instead of opening a storefront and paying for staff, the merchants would bring free samples of their goods (usually books and pictures) directly to the doorsteps of potential customers. 

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The clients were often more open to a bookseller’s visits than they were to those of other cold callers. The free samples certainly helped.  

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The eggler

Despite having a catchy name, this role was rather boring. Eggs used to be sold directly from farms by people known as “Egglers” until it became possible to purchase eggs in the convenience of a grocery store carton. 

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They would also provide various other poultry products. And if that weren’t enough, they’d suggestive-sell other farm goods to their customers. If you go to the farmer’s market today, you might still come across an Eggler. However, the job is now exceptionally rare. 

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Hush shopkeepers

The first rule of hush shopkeeping was that you weren’t allowed to speak about hush shopkeeping. These employees were given their moniker because, during the time of prohibition, they were responsible for selling alcoholic beverages and were required to keep their illegal operations secret.

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The function of the hush shopkeeper became obsolete with the repeal of the prohibition laws in the year 1933. So, the closest thing to a modern hush shopkeeper is probably someone who sells illegal drugs. 

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The daguerreotypist

Daguerreotypes were the first cameras made widely available to the public during the middle of the 1800s. They gained notoriety for their use in portrait photography of public officials and other famous people. However, it took a lot of work to create the images. 

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This laborious technique was used to make Abraham Lincoln’s headshot, which took quite some time. During such shoots, it was the responsibility of the daguerreotypist to capture the photographs and chemically develop them into pleasing forms. Smartphones and selfie sticks have since replaced this technology and the daguerreotypist job. 

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The knocker-upper

Imagine living in a world where you never had to set your alarm. Sounds perfect, right? Well, the reality wasn’t quite so idyllic. People still had to get up on time, even before the widespread use of mechanical alarm clocks. That’s where the knocker-upper came into the equation. 

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Since no convenient device was available, knocker-uppers would tap on people’s windows to wake them up. Though the method may seem archaic, it was still popular as recently as the 1950s.

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Leech collectors

Compared to what we know about medicine now, medicine in the 19th century was shockingly different. For example, “bloodletting” was once used extensively, allowing physicians to “suck” impurities out of the blood and sicknesses out of the body.

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Physicians either took blood by hand or with the assistance of leeches, which were procured by leech collectors and then sold to hospitals and medical practices. Though you won’t find many leech farmers around today, leeches are still used in medicine, so the job isn’t entirely obsolete. 

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Professional lamplighters

Candles and oil lamps were the sources of light that powered street lights in the past. It was, therefore, someone’s obligation to switch the lights on as the sun began to set, and it was also someone’s responsibility to turn them off the following morning. 

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The lamplighter was responsible for carrying out this role. Before that, during the Middle Ages, young men known as link boys would patrol the streets at night while carrying torches to ensure that streets were well-lit.

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Breaker boys

Extraction of coal requires a large number of human resources, and until the latter half of the 1800s, the task was done entirely by hand. Impurities in the coal had to be removed, but the use of breaker boys for this task was met with widespread opposition. It turns out that the boys, who ranged in age from eight to twelve, were working in violation of rules prohibiting the employment of minors. 

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By the 1920s, stricter enforcement of child labor laws and improvements in mining equipment led to the complete elimination of the breaker boy position.

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Dictaphone operators

These days, you can find an app on your smartphone to do just about anything you want. Come up with an app idea, and it probably already exists! For example, plenty of apps make it easy to capture voice notes.

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One hundred years ago, though, someone had to operate a dictaphone to do it. The typist wore a stethoscope-like headset connected to the device and used a foot pedal to stop and restart a cylinder. Fast typists made around $1.25 per hour. By contrast, transcribers made $1.25 to $2.50 per hour.

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Ice cutters

Before the development of modern refrigeration, people had to go to incredible lengths to keep food cold during the warmer months. For example, in the early 19th century, people were recruited to serve as ice cutters. These workers would go into frozen lakes and rivers and harvest blocks of ice using hand tools or saws. 

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Ice cutting was risky work since it took place in freezing weather and on terrain that was difficult to maneuver. However, they were paid by the block, so it was in an ice cutter’s best interests to harvest as much as possible.

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Log drivers

When the timber business was in its infancy, the river provided the simplest and most cost-effective method for moving logs from one location to another. Downed trees were tied together to form a makeshift raft, and a log driver was entrusted with the task of navigating the raft to the mill farther down the river. 

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Although a significant number of people perished as a result of the procedure, it continued to be used right up to the 1970s. Thankfully, the dangerous job is now obsolete. 

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Elevator operator

The task of a lift operator was difficult because they were responsible for much more than simply pressing a few buttons on a control panel. The manual elevators were controlled by a large lever that not only started and stopped the car but also adjusted the rate at which it moved.

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So, to draw level with each floor, a lift operator needed to demonstrate impeccable judgment regarding speed and distance. In addition, they had to be charming hosts and guides as they distributed shoppers throughout the store.

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The pinsetter

When bowling first rose to popularity, there were no machines available to remove and replace the pins after they were knocked over. So, humans had to do the job. 

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A pinsetter would do the work by hand. They were also responsible for giving the ball back to the player after each bowl. The procedure required significantly more time compared to the contemporary Brunswick A2 Pinsetter machine, which can complete the task in a matter of seconds.

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Lectors (professional readers)

If you’re fortunate, your employer will allow you to listen to an audiobook or podcast through your headphones while you work. If not, you’ll have to find another way to pass the time.

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In contrast, during the 1900s, it took a lot of work to keep up with what was happening in the outside world while working. Because there were no radios or televisions available at the time, factories would hire lectors to read newspapers to their workers while they were on the job.

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The clock winder

It was the responsibility of a clock winder, as the name suggests, to manually wind up clocks. These people played a significant part in the first industrial revolution. Although it was inevitable that the job would become irrelevant, there is one notable exception to the rule. In 2013, the Queen of England was interested in hiring a clock winder for approximately $50,000 per year.

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If that seems excessive, it’s because Buckingham Palace is home to approximately one thousand clocks, each of which needs to be wound manually. 

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The signalman

At the beginning of the 1800s, early signalmen were also known as Railway Police. This name stuck with them for the rest of their careers. They would communicate with each other and the train drivers to use a flag system to convey their instructions.

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To direct trains to the correct spot, signalmen controlled a series of levers and switches that were arranged in a specific order. By contrast, in today’s world, it takes little more than the press of a button to operate the points on a railway network.

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Human computers

Our computers and smartphones can alleviate much of the mental strain that otherwise comes with cognitive processes. However, it took computers several decades to become more intelligent than people. 

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Complex computations were performed using only the human brain as recently as the 1700s, with most of the labor done by women. Many African-American women served as mathematicians with NASA at a time when the space race was at its height. Their story inspired the book Hidden Figures and the 2016 film adaptation of the same title.

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Professional lungs

Between the 1300s and the 1500s, alchemical businesses had employees whom they termed “lungs.” During the process of melting metals, it was their responsibility to fan the flames.

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The procedure was highly hazardous to human health, as it emitted potentially dangerous compounds into the atmosphere. The workers’ lungs turned black from breathing in the toxic fumes, and as a result, the position was eventually eliminated.

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The mudlark

A mudlark was a specific kind of scavenger that traveled from place to place in quest of abandoned items in order to resell them. Those living in abject poverty were the ones who typically took on this role, and the workers who did it had few discernible talents.

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They sifted through the muck along the riverbanks while the tide was out, often coming upon human bodies and dead domestic animals. From the year 1904, this ugly job became illegal.

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Necessary women

Pre-colonization, many homes could not function without the presence of household workers. Usually women, these workers were hired for the purpose of cleaning out chamber pots each day.

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It wasn’t until the latter half of the 18th century that people started keeping restrooms within their homes, and this profession went out of business. We’re glad no one has to perform such a disgusting daily task anymore!

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Powder monkeys

Certain jobs are tied inextricably to particular eras and decades, to the point that it would be absurd to try to do them in any other context. For example, during the Age of Sail (the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century), it was the responsibility of a “powder monkey” to ensure that the cannons were always loaded with gunpowder.

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The role of “powder monkey” was eventually rendered unnecessary as a result of the growing technological complexity of the navy’s armaments. Nowadays, the job is done automatically. 

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The vivandière

A “vivandière” was essentially a maid, although a very high-status one. The first people to fill this function served during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars; the term was also used during the American Civil War.

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Vivandières were women who followed troops, cared for minor wounds, mended clothing, prepared meals, and transported water. France’s Ministry of War abolished the position at the turn of the twentieth century, just before World War One broke out.

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Ratteners (also known as Ratters)

During the 14th century in Europe, rat trapping was a beneficial activity, but now we have pest management to deal with rodent problems. The work of rat catchers continued at a frenetic pace during the Great Plague, which lasted from 1347 to 1351.

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During the Victorian era, those who caught rats were known as “ratteners,” and they sold their products to bars. In these establishments, the rodents would be utilized for amusement or cruelly consumed by canines.

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Gong farmer

In the 18th century, the modern sewerage system began to gain widespread acceptance. You may be wondering what happened to the human waste collected from people’s houses prior to that time. That is where gong farmers come into the equation. 

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Between the 1400s and 1600s, it was the responsibility of gong farmers to collect human waste from cesspits and privies. The word “gong” was a slang phrase used to designate both privy and its contents. Hence the term “gong farmer.”

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Herb strewers

It was inevitable that privies and cesspits would leave behind an absolutely repulsive odor. The more affluent residents of the city could not stand the putrid smell, and they were in a better position than most others to do anything about it. So, they used their financial resources to hire herb strewers.

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Herb strewers would grow and distribute roses while also planting odor-masking herbs like chamomile, lavender, and basil. Their work went some way towards covering the ungodly smell of human waste. 

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The redsmith

The material that these people worked with gave rise to the term “redsmith.” They mostly worked with copper, which, when polished, takes on the appearance of a brilliant bronze hue – hence the “redsmith” moniker. 

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It is possible that there are still a few red smiths operating in the world today, but it is far more likely that a metalsmith, as they are more often called, would deal with copper along with the other metals they use. 

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Dispatch riders

While motorcycle couriers are still in existence today, during World Wars I and II, these individuals were known as dispatch riders, and they had a particular responsibility. It was up to them to ensure important signals were sent between the various armed forces.

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Radios were accessible but unreliable and easily intercepted due to their proximity to other electronic devices. The term “dispatch rider” is sometimes used to refer to motorcycle couriers in the United Kingdom. However, “motorcycle courier” is becoming more common.

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Aircraft listeners

The use of radar is essential in modern military air defense. However, before the development of such technology, people relied on more basic approaches.

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For instance, the British military used aircraft listeners prior to the Second World War. These listeners would use acoustic mirrors to pick up the sound of enemy planes flying above. Although the strategy was successful, it often led to the detection of hostile aircraft at a point when there was insufficient time for a response.

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Soda jerk

In the twentieth century, the soda jerk was a viable career option for young people just out of school, much as the modern barista is for young adults today. It was a similar position, only in this case, the beverages supplied were sodas rather than coffees, and the pastries were replaced with ice cream. Servants wore crepe hats and bow ties as part of their costumes.

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Soda jerks were usually employed by pharmacies. However, the provision of soda was eventually usurped by drive-thrus and quick-service restaurants. So, the soda-jerk job became obsolete.

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Professional resurrectionists

To exhume human remains in today’s world, you must first get authorization from the relevant authorities. However, just a few hundred years ago, medicine students were compelled to practice their skills on the remains of deceased patients.

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They needed someone to dig up the corpses, and that task was taken up by resurrectionists. It was a somewhat controversial role at the time and has since been outlawed. Medicine students still use cadavers at universities around the world. However, they are obtained via official channels.

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Toad doctors

Tuberculosis was once a threat to humans across the globe. It was thought that a patient’s condition would improve if a muslin bag with a toad in it was slung around the neck. If you’ve never heard of toad doctors before, you’re in for a treat – they are the pinnacle of quackery. 

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In the 1800s, medical professionals promoted this kind of “folk magic” as a treatment for scrofula (tuberculosis). The toad would be hung around the patient’s neck. The toad might be living or dead – it didn’t make a difference. We can’t decide which would be worse!

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The phrenologist

It is a commonly held belief that certain regions of the brain are responsible for particular activities. Phrenology took things a step further, suggesting that the shape and characteristics of the skull were somehow involved. By mapping and palpating someone’s skull, they believed they could diagnose anything. 

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The phrenologist’s duty was to determine your level of intellect and other characteristics based on the bumps on your head. In the 1840s, thankfully, the practice began to lose its legitimacy.

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Groom of the Stool

The Groom of the Stool was esteemed despite his dubious duties. He was in charge of helping English kings use the restroom. The assistant was the monarch’s confidant because of their close relationship.

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Only monarchs hired a Groom, and the role all but vanished during Elizabeth I’s reign. She ruled from 1553 to 1603, and when you consider the jobs that were around back then, it may as well have been on another planet. 

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