Occupations That Went Extinct: Common Jobs and Professions That Don’t Exist Anymore
Tue Oct 11 2022
In our fast-paced world, it can be hard to remember that there were once a ton of everyday jobs that have since become extinct. And it’s expected that many more will come to follow, as it’s predicted that up to 70 million jobs will become automated in the next eight years in the United States. History comes to teach us that certain jobs simply have their heyday, before disappearing entirely.
Presumably the same will happen for some of today’s common professions. With the rise of technological advancement, many former professions ceased to exist as they found themselves replaced by computers. For other occupations, the general population had simply outgrown their services. Take a look at the once-common jobs that simply don’t exist anymore, and why.
Pinsetter AKA Bowling Pin Spotter
Bowling alleys continue to be a much-loved recreational activity, as well as a competitive target sport. Alleys have been around since the mid-19th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that major upgrades were made to the bowling experience. And when those changes occurred, a whole group of people found themselves out of work.
Before the mid-1930s, alleys used to hire professional alley pinsetters to help realign bowling pins. It may sound like an easy job, but these “pin monkeys” actually used to work around the clock arranging knocked pins and stay up until the early hours as the alley required. It was a low-paying job and one that got replaced by automated mechanical pinsetters by 1936.
Lamplighter AKA Candle Maintenance Worker
It may be hard to believe in the 21st century, but street lamps used to have to be lighted individually by a hired individual. Professional lamplighters used to venture outside just before dusk with a ladder and the various materials needed to keep the lamps lit throughout the night – usually, they were stocked with candles, oil canisters, and or gas mantles.
Some lamplighters didn’t even need a ladder if they simply needed to relight a candle wick, so they would use a long pole with a lit wick at the end and reach for the candle lamp. But the lamp lighting profession only lasted around 100 years when street lamps were given electrical systems in the 19th century.
Cigarette Girl AKA Attractive Vendor
Before the mid-1950s, Cigarette Girls were once a common sighting in all kinds of places, like restaurants, clubs, bars, casinos, theatres, and even airports. They were young attractive women employed to sell cigarettes on a tray, alongside other refreshments like chewing gum, cigars, and candy. Cigarette Girls didn’t just turn up to work in their everyday clothes, however – they had a uniform.
Usually fitted out in shades of red and black, they were required to wear short skirts with matching mini pillbox hats or a large satin bow. Their position died out when people’s attitudes to smoking started to change, accompanied by the rise of cigarette machines. The services of Cigarette Girls simply weren’t needed anymore.
Daguerreotypist AKA Portrait Photographer
Before there was film and digital photographs, there were sheets of silver-plated copper that imprinted pictures called daguerreotypes. These were small metal plates with a mirror-like finish that wealthy people could have their portrait image imprinted on. And daguerreotypists were the “photographers” of their time, who often saw themselves as portrait artists.
Pictured above, a daguerreotypist sits with a collection of some of his miniature metal portraits. The daguerreotypist profession thrived around the mid-1800s, but became obsolete as photographic technology advanced in the 1860s and beyond. In the end, daguerreotypists found their area of expertise to be not only outdated but also too expensive.
Female Computer AKA Human Calculator
Women used to dominate a now-extinct profession known as “human calculators” or “computers”. They essentially existed to work out complicated figures entirely by hand, working throughout the day with breaks few and far between. Interestingly, the profession was almost exclusively made up of women, especially after NASA supervisor Macie “Bobby” Roberts decided in 1942 that male computers would undermine female computers.
NASA, along with other big organizations, would employ these human calculators to work out big and small calculations alike. Some calculations could take as long as a week to complete, and would be worked out on graph paper or chalkboards. Of course, with the invention of mechanical and electrical calculators, this profession soon became extinct.
Gong Farmer AKA Human Excrement Manager
These days, we take sewage systems for granted. Before sewer innovations, it was someone’s job to process and properly dispose of human waste, which you can imagine, was quite an unglamorous occupation. People with this job were called gong farmers, and they would go to privies and cesspits (AKA medieval toilets) to dig up and remove the human excrement.
Gong farmers were paid well for this undertaking, but it came at a huge cost. Not only would a gong farmer spend his working hours submerged in human waste (sometimes up to their necks!) but they were also only allowed to live in certain places. On top of that, they worked through the night between the hours of 9 pm to 5 am and slept during the day.
Knocker-upper AKA Human Alarm Clock
Have you ever wondered how people used to wake up on time before the invention of alarm clocks? Well here you have it, life used to be populated by knocker-uppers, AKA, human alarm clocks. Some people made it their job to wake people up on time in the morning, especially in countries like Britain and Ireland.
Their methods were simple – to wake someone up, they would simply go to the homes of the people n question and either tap on their bedroom windows with an extended stick or spit peas at the windows through a straw. When mechanical alarm clocks were introduced to the market in the 1840s, these knocker-uppers still found themselves employed for the most part due to the high price of clocks. But by the 1950s, this profession had more or less ended.
Ice Cutter AKA Lake Ice Collector and Distributor
Disney wasn’t lying when it depicted Kristoff as an ice cutter in Frozen. It’s a real profession and one that was especially prominent in the 1800s. Their job may have been simple – cutting ice into smaller pieces – but it certainly wasn’t an easy one. They would have to cut ice from frozen lakes into smaller but still large chunks and transport them where they were needed.
Sometimes they would deliver these ice blocks to everyday homes, but usually, it was catering services or food businesses that really needed the service of an ice cutter. It wasn’t until the 1920s when the use of refrigerators started to increase, that their profession started to die down. It’s just as well, as ice cutting was a dangerous job. Ice cutters would frequently lose their lives in the risky conditions needed to obtain the ice.
Barber Surgeon AKA Hairdressing Medic
Once upon a time, the person you would trust to cut your hair would be the same person you would trust to give you a surgical procedure. Meet the barber-surgeon: a person who worked two very distinct jobs under one job title simply because both of them required some knife skills. These underappreciated workers were stationed at battlefields to both tend to soldiers’ hair and also to their injuries.
They weren’t considered on the same level as physicians, however, who were considered too educated to perform surgeries. While physicians served the wealthiest members of society, barber-surgeons dealt with everyone else – from common workers to peasants alike. As well as tending to hair and performing surgery when needed, they were the ones who pulled out teeth, amputated limbs, and gave enemas.
Leech Collector AKA Parasite Lurer
In the 19th century, leeches weren’t seen as the nauseating blood-sucking parasites that we see them as today. They believed to contain health benefits for poor afflicted souls and were collected by professional leech collectors for their use in medicine. It was commonly thought that leeches had magical properties that essentially sucked the illness out of people.
It was the responsibility of the leech collector to find and gather leeches in the wild, and they had a variety of methods for doing so. They would use the decapitated legs of animals to attract leeches out of their habitats near bodies of water, occasionally even using their own limbs to draw them out! Leech collectors stopped existing once medical research understood that they didn’t have the health benefits people had been led to believe after all.
Log Driver AKA Tree Trunk Raftsman
Before logs were transported on trucks, log drivers were needed to move tree trunks from A to B. But how did they do this before the rise of modern road transportation? A log driver, or a draveur, would float these huge logs along rivers to get them where they needed to be, usually transporting a convoy of trunks when they did.
As you can see in the photo above, it was a very dangerous occupation. Not only would a log driver need to balance themself atop the logs, but they would have to navigate narrow winding rivers and boulders, and sometimes need to separate or group together these logs to better “drive” them downriver.
Milkman AKA Dairy Delivery Man
It wasn’t that long ago when milk was delivered to our homes by milkmen, delivery men who primarily dealt with milk and dairy products. In the 50s and 60s, and particularly in suburban neighborhoods, milkmen would consistently roll up to people’s houses in a van with fresh bottles of cows milk.
Milkmen would save others the arduous task of lugging around a household staple, and many people remember their milkmen fondly. But it soon became cheaper and just as easy to buy milk in grocery stores when doing the usual food shopping, and processes to extend milk’s shelf life were introduced.
Breaker Boy AKA Underage Coal Worker
It was very common in 1920s America for young kids to work long shifts in a factory. Boys between the ages of eight and 12 in particular were employed in coal factories to assist coal creakers, regardless of the child labor laws that were meant to protect them. These kids were called Breaker boys, and they were sadly a very common sighting.
Their job was to separate all the impurities out of the coal, and would work six days a week for 10 hours a day doing so. Aside from the long hours, it was dangerous work, and factory machinery was often responsible for causing serious physical harm to these kids. It was only after someone from the National Child Labor Committee came and took photos of the Breaker Boys at work that the labor laws were reformed to prevent the child labor.
Phrenologists AKA Pseudoscientific Skull Reader
From the early 1800s all the way until the 1960s, Phrenologists were considered to be masters of science for studying and measuring bumps on the skull as a way of predicting personality traits. The study of Phrenology is considered to be a pseudoscience and one that has since been widely discredited.
Phrenologists would study the bumps on the skull and determine the person’s character traits, suggesting for them a career path or compatible marriage partners. This profession was finally banned in 1967 – it was decided that Phrenologists weren’t the “masters of science” people had once believed them to be.
Plague Doctor AKA Untrained Medical Practitioner
Plague doctors were medical practitioners who used to exist in medieval times. They were hired by the city to treat poor plague victims and wore scary protective clothing to help them keep safe on the job. For example, their face mask contained a mixture of spices to purify the air they breathed, and they usually carried a wooden cane in order to poke and prod patients without having to touch them directly.
Despite their status as a physician, they didn’t have the best reputation. People naturally got scared when they saw a plague doctor visit their area and often fled their homes upon sight of one. Plague doctors were also known to give false diagnoses in order to extract more money from their patients. Aside from that, they also didn’t necessarily have any medical training.
Pre-Radar Listener AKA Human Radar Detector
Before the appropriate technology was developed, the military had to employ human pre-radar listeners to try and hear when the enemy was close by. These people would listen out for the sound of approaching aircraft that was different from that of their own army, using something that’s referred to as “acoustic mirrors”.
But these aren’t the kind of mirrors that we use today. These acoustic mirrors were specifically designed to pick up on the sound of engines from a distance, and it was the job of the pre-radar listener to report on anything noteworthy and keep track of them. It was an important job, however goofy the listener may have looked while wearing the hearing device.
Typist AKA Cheap Female Clerk
Being a typist was a popular profession for women in the first half of the 20th century. Typists used typewriters to quickly write up letters, documents, or other written materials for companies back before computers and keyboards were a thing. Interestingly, the typewriter was considered by some historians as having gotten women out of the house and into the working world.
But why were typists typically women? There are many reasons cited as to why women were generally employed in this role, not least of all because women were paid less and therefore cheaper for establishments of individuals to employ. Allegedly, some also believed that women’s hands were better built for the task of typewriting.
Rat Catcher AKA Rodent Hunter
One of the worst jobs to have during the Victorian era was being a rat catcher – i.e., someone tasked with hunting, killing, or selling rodents that were running around the streets of London. The capital city was known to have been a filthy place for the most part, and rat catchers were needed to maintain the growing rat population as best as possible.
There’s a rumor that one particular London rat catcher caught 700 rats in a single building! It was a gritty job, as these catchers were known to rub sweet scents all over themselves to entice the rats, before catching the rodents with their bare hands. And they weren’t always killed; sometimes the rats were sold as house pets!
Dispatch Rider AKA Military Messenger
Dispatch riders, now a thing of the past, were once crucial members of the armed forces. The distribution of information was once not as easy and fast as it is today and required people to travel long distances to ensure the safest delivery of important news. Even during WWII, when radio transmissions could have been used to distribute information.
Dispatch riders were essentially armed force messengers riding on motorbikes, although during WW1 in Egypt some were known to ride on camels instead. These crucial couriers would also have to travel long distances with a bunch of emergency motor supplies in case something should happen to any part of their vehicle, as it was the rider’s responsibility to fix any mechanical issues they may encounter on their journey.
Lector AKA Factory-Worker Entertainers
In the early 1900s, it was accepted that factory workers would need some entertainment during their long labor-intensive days to keep their minds active. Factory lectors became a new industry standard, and it was their job to read out loud to the on-site workers. They read aloud newspaper articles or books, and if they were feeling especially risky, some radical reading material.
Lectors would sit or stand on a raised platform at the back of the workroom and project their voice for the whole room to hear. But you won’t find them around anymore. In the place of factory lectors, we have things like scrolling through social media and podcasts to keep us company during our work days.
Soup Tester AKA Poison Checker
Would you believe that in Victorian times, someone was employed specifically to check whether or not a soup in question was poisonous or not? Soup testers were a real thing, and they were hired by royalty or members of the aristocracy to ensure that the soup being served was safe for them to eat.
Often it wasn’t only soup that these testers would check. Their job was basically to eat the food being served before someone more important did. If they recoiled in anguish in the next few minutes, then the rest of the family would naturally refrain from touching the food. We’re hoping that they were allowed to eat a whole serving at least, although something tells us that they weren’t.
Scissors Grinder AKA Outdoor Tool Sharpener
These days, each household is responsible for keeping their knives and scissors sharp. You only need to go down to the local Home Depot to buy a tool that helps you sharpen your tools, or just by new tools altogether. But back in the day, people used to need to visit a specific person for the job of sharpening their tools – the scissors grinder.
The practice of scissor grinding was usually done outdoors with help of a large metal wheel connected to the front end of a bicycle. The scissors grinder had to employ an assistant too, to ride the bicycle and power the wheel rotation. But once Knife sharpeners became an easy and affordable product in the 1970s (as did simply replacing old knives and scissors), the profession went extinct.
Vivandiere AKA Military Canteen Women
The American Civil War that took place in the 19th century saw the rise of vivandieres, also known as cantinieres, who were women that were hired by the military to complete a number of various tasks. Vivandieres could find themselves working as maids, working in canteens, tending to wounded army troops, or cooking for the camp.
Despite the medical labor that their work entailed, they were highly respected members of the armed forces. They had “feminized” versions of the uniforms worn by the military that saw them wear tight-fitting jackets and knee-length skirts over-top pants in the same colors as their respective regiments. But this profession had all but died out before World War One.
Linotype Operator AKA Newspaper Typesetter
Linotype machines used hot metal typesetting systems for newspaper printing. They required skilled linotype operators to arrange the hot metal onto presses, which would print the test onto newspaper. It was a job performed by men and women up until the day when they became obsolete.
This photo shows an operator from 1925, but by the 1960s linotype operating quickly became obsolete. These skilled workers found themselves out of a job, as the faster phototypesetting that was on the rise required far less skilled workers to maintain the machines.
Bell Man AKA Town Crier
Back in medieval Britain, some people were employed as town criers to inform people in the street about the news of the day or other information of public importance. They needed to be able to read, which wasn’t a given at the time. In fact, most people couldn’t read, which is why a town crier was needed in the first place.
Also called bell men, these criers often wore elaborate outfits while on duty, often times dressing in shades of gold, red, and white. And after they were finished announcing what they had to say, they would pin the newspaper onto the door of an inn, a tree, or community post.
Deer Culler AKA Professional Hunter
In the 1930s, the U.S. was concerned about the deer population. There had been a rise in numbers across North America, so the government came up with a strategy to help curtail their growing numbers – hire deer cullers to hunt them down and help minimize their growing population.
The government was concerned that the growth in deer population was leading to more soil and land erosion, so they funded this enterprise until sometime in the seventies. As commercial hunting started to become the norm, these professional deer hunters found themselves with less and less work.
Billy Boy AKA Tea Maker
Some young men and boys used to work a specific job on building sites serving the other workers. They were considered apprentices, and their days consisted of mainly making tea for during the workers’ break times. In the photo below, two billy boys in 1937 are preparing what was known as “elevenses”, a type of afternoon snack that consisted of tea.
Billy boys would boil water in containers known as “billy cans” by holding them over a flame. Aside from this, billy boys were also expected to deliver messages or just generally carry out odd jobs. Aside from building sites, they were sometimes employed by blacksmiths, or hired to work at railway yards.
Sea Sponge Harvester AKA Island Diver
There’s an island off of Greece called Kalymnos Island, in which men have been working as sea sponge harvesters for several hundred years. Those who were employed as such had to be extremely fit as it was a physically demanding occupation, plus they needed more than a fair share of courage to plunge to the depths.
It was in the early 19th century that these island sponge divers started diving with a piece of skandalopetra (AKA a heavy piece of marble) to get them to the bottom of the ocean floor faster and more efficiently. But these harvesters could only work when the waters were warm in the summer months. By winter, they returned home until the summer season came around again.
Broom Squire AKA Artisan Broom Maker
These days brooms are made in a factory. But back in the day, we used to have to rely upon broom squires to create the essential household cleaning tool. The broom squire profession required people to work long hours with their hands from the collecting process right until the final product.
These broom makers would first need to collect birch twigs to make up the body of their broom head, which they would take from a rural landscape. These artisans usually didn’t earn much more for their efforts, though. They were considered to be laborers and generally remained poor for their entire lives.
Elevator Operator AKA Lift Girl
It’s a pretty much extinct profession these days, but once upon a time, elevator operators were a must for any hotel. It was their job not only to press the buttons for the important guests but to greet them, manually open and close elevator doors (as was needed at the time), and inform guests of what might be on each hotel floor.
Often, they were also expected to control the speed of the elevator shaft. But this profession was rendered more or less obsolete, perhaps unsurprisingly, as elevator doors started opening and closing automatically. Bu the 1970s, many people who previously held this position were fired.
Drysalter AKA Chemical Product Dealer
A drysalter was essentially a dealer who dealt in chemical products for different kinds of foods or perishable products. They were especially popular during the 1700s in England and would know of just the right product to preserve, glue, varnish, dye, or color the item in question.
Drysalters were around until the first half of the 20th century, after which they pretty much died off. Truthfully, drysalters found themselves dealing in all manner of materials – some would dye fabrics, some would preserve food, and some would trade hemp, cochineal, flax, logwood, and potash.
Mursmäcka AKA Female Construction Worker
For women in Sweden during the 1800s, they could consider working as a Mursmäcka on construction sites. Their job would consist of helping the other construction workers by simply handing them mortar when they were in the middle of binding bricks and blocks.
It was a vocation taken up by uneducated women or those of a low social ranking, but these Mursmäcka were a common site in cities like Stockholm. It wasn’t until the 1920s that this job died out, and it’s just as well. It was actually pretty dangerous, as it often required these women to work from great heights with no safety measures in place.
Baked Potato Seller AKA “Broken-down Tradesmen”
In England during the middle of the 19th century, it was common to see baked potato sellers along the streets of busy places. London was full of them, and they were selling potatoes for two different reasons. Some potatoes were a cheap meal, while other people bought hot potatoes to keep their hands warm in the cold.
These sellers weren’t highly respected, however, and were sometimes referred to as “broken-down tradesmen”. In the 1830s, there were “fewer than three hundred individuals engaged in the street trade of baked potatoes” in London. You could hear them before you saw them, as they would cry out into the streets advertising their wares.
Hush Shopkeeper AKA Illegal Alcohol Vendor
From 1920 to 1933, it was illegal to buy and sell alcoholic beverages thanks to the nationwide constitutional law known as prohibition. But it was still possible to get your hands on alcohol thanks to people known as hush shopkeepers. Some shopkeepers found themselves illegally trading alcohol to trusted customers.
Unsurprisingly, they were named hush shopkeepers as they had to keep their practice “hush”. But this specific job was put to an end when the 18th amendment was appealed in 1933, which saw the prohibition scrapped. Essentially, the prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking or getting wasted.
Shoeshiner AKA Boot Polishing Boy
Shoeshiners used to line the streets of Victorian England, especially around places that experienced heavy footfall. People generally thought of shoeshiners as young boys who were hired to carry out the duty, but the truth is that kids, men, and women alike could and would make money as a boot polisher.
Some shoeshiners would go the extra mile and offer shoe repair services or even some clothes tailoring. And while it was a menial job reserved for the lower classes, many famous and important figures started out shoe-shining, such as soul-singer James Brown and former Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich.