According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, monthly job gains averaged 235,000 over the last three months. Many of these jobs and industries didn’t even exist 10, 20, even 30 years ago – coder, software engineer, social media strategist, Zumba instructor, to name a few. But, just as new jobs are created, others become completely obsolete. Out with the old, as it were.
As we mark Labor Day on Monday and pay tribute to hard work and the American dream, here is a look at trades from a bygone era. You can check out the complete selection by following the Library’s new Pinterest board on jobs of the past.
While some of these professions eventually evolved into other vocations thanks to industrialization and technological advances, quite a few were dangerous and often involved child labor.
Yesterday’s rat catcher could definitely be considered today’s exterminator, who removes all manner of pests from your home, including rats. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, catching rats wasn’t as simple as baiting traps and using poison. Animals were often employed, including ferrets, as seen in this picture (left) from the Library’s George Grantham Bain (Bain News Service) collection.
In his book, “Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher” (1898), English rat catcher Ike Matthews wrote an account of his career catching vermin.
“When working ferrets for rat-catching, always work them unmuzzled. Make as little noise as possible, as Rats are very bad to bolt sometimes. Never grab at the ferret as it leaves the hole, nor tempt it out of the hole with a dead Rat. The best way is to let the ferret come out of its own choice, and then pick it up very quietly, for if you grab at it, it is likely to become what we call a ‘stopper'; and never on any account force a ferret to go into a hole.”
Employee entertainment is a perk in many companies today, including amenities like pool tables and foosball to happy hour and office pets. In cigar factories during the 19th and 20th centuries, lectors entertained employees by reading books or newspapers aloud. They were often paid by the workers or workers’ unions.
Child labor has existed throughout most of human history. They were exploited because of their size and manageability, getting paid less than adults and put in harm’s way. For example, young boys employed as powder monkeys were in charge of transporting and then loading gunpowder into giant guns and canons on warships.
If you’ve ever watched “Downton Abbey,” you’re probably familiar with the position of valet. This “gentleman’s gentleman” served as a personal attendant to the master of the manor, dressing him, running his bath, shaving him and, as seen in this picture, even ironing his clothes. I suppose a modern equivalent could be a personal assistant, although domestic duties usually aren’t part of the job.
As it turns out, milkmen still exist. But, they’ve become less of a necessity and more of a convenience in today’s society, much like grocery deliveries, according to this article in the New York Times.
Other historical jobs featured on the Pinterest board include switchboard operator, typist, lamplighter and bowling pin boy.
Make sure to check out the Library’s other Pinterest boards (46 total), with topics ranging from architecture to sports and activities to other holidays and celebrations.