Jobs of yesteryear: Obsolete occupations

Published 28.04.2017 22:28
Updated 28.04.2017 22:32
Putty maker preparing colorful putties rolled up on a stick for children.
Putty maker preparing colorful putties rolled up on a stick for children.

With every new invention, some of our favorite products are replaced with newer models and the world changes within the blink of an eye – making some occupations that were once popular become nearly obsolete. Despite the uncertainty, some still hope the jobs of yesteryear will make a big comeback in the future

The world is changing and some things cannot keep up with the pace. Just as there are many occupations today that did not exist 20, 30 or 50 years ago such as computer engineering, we can say the same about jobs that do not exist today but were once very popular when they first emerged.

The advancement of technology and the ensuing changes in our society have rendered a number of jobs in the modern world obsolete. Namely, with the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, automation has made it possible for machines to do the jobs humans once did - and do them faster. As a result, it's no surprise that some jobs are in decline and others have disappeared altogether. Whatever your occupation, there is a chance that you might lose it to a robot one day. That being said, here are some jobs you might have never known used to exist in the past.


A lamplighter lighting up the candles inside the lamps on the streets.
Before electric street lamps, there were people occupied to manually light each lamp on the streets. Lamplighters lit each lamp every evening, generally by means of a wick on a long pole. At dawn, they would return to put them out using a small hook on the same pole. Early street lights burned with candles generally, or oil or other type of liquid with wicks. The lamplighter's duty was to carry a ladder and relight the candles, ignite the oils or light the gas mantles. In the 19th century, gas lights became the dominant form of street lighting. Early gaslights required lamplighters but eventually, systems were developed which allowed the lights to operate automatically. Today, lamp lighting is an extremely rare job. In Brest as a tourist attraction, one lamplighter has been employed since 2009 to light the kerosene lamps on the shopping street every day.


Bowling, a sport and a leisure activity, dates to ancient Egypt as remnants of balls used at the time were found among artifacts going back to 3,200 B.C. As bowling grew in popularity over time, a new occupation emerged along with it - the pinsetter. Otherwise known as the pin spotter or pin boy, the pinsetter was a person who manually reset bowling pins to their correct positions, cleared the fallen pins and returned bowling balls to players. Due to the nature of the work (low pay, often part-time, manual labor), many pinsetters were teenage boys. The pinsetter occupation went on the decline once Gottfried Schmidt invented the mechanical pinsetter in 1936. Today, many mechanical pinsetters are integrated with electronic scoring systems of varying sophistication and the pinsetter as a job is now history.

Putty makers

The colorful stalls carried by the putty makers were once a door opening to the tasty world of candies for children. When the putty maker entered to the street, all children drooled for the tasty putties. This colorful sweet which came in numerous flavors such as peppermint, strawberry and lemon was usually sold by the persons who made them. The putty makers used to wander around the city on foot, trying to sell their sweets to the children who are playing outside. Over time, putty makers became iconic symbols of Ramadan (Eid al-Fıtr). Now, as children can find sweets in every grocery store, the putty makers have become the thing of the past.

Professional mourners

Although it sounds absurd, paying people to cry at a loved one's funeral was quite necessary when social class and reputation was of utmost importance. Professional mourners or moirologists, also known as paid mourners, were the symbols of a historical occupation that was practiced in Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures and many other parts of the world. In the 19th century, when funerals were a status symbol as well as a fond farewell, wealthier families often felt compelled to hire people to lament. Moirologists, in addition to being mentioned in the Bible, are widely invoked in literature as well as we have seen in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, whose job it was to mourn at funerals in this classic tale of Victorian poverty.

Human alarm clocks

A woman blowing a whistle to wake people up in the morning.Most of us can't stand the sound of our alarm going off every morning but things could have been worse: In the 18th century, you could have been a human alarm clock. As unbelievable as it sounds, a knocker-upper, or the knocker-up, was a profession in the U.K. and Ireland that started during the Industrial Revolution and lasted well into the revolution, when alarm clocks were neither cheap nor reliable. The knocker-upper used a heavy stick to knock on clients' doors or a lighter and longer stick to reach windows on the upper floors. There were large numbers of people carrying out the job, especially in larger industrial towns such as Manchester. Generally, the job of knocker-upper was carried out by elderly men and women. However, sometimes police constables supplemented their pay by performing the task during early morning patrols. To put it simply, the knocker-upper's job was to rouse sleeping people so they could get to work on time.

Ice cutters

Before the era of widespread mechanical refrigeration and air conditioning technology, there were simply the "ice cutters." The work was done as a winter chore by many farmers and as a winter occupation by icemen back in the day. Ice was preserved for cold food storage during warm weather and was delivered to residential and commercial customers with ice boxes. As a very dangerous job done in extreme conditions, ice trade was a major business in the 19th and 20th centuries before mechanical refrigeration replaced it. Nowadays, most refrigerators generate perfectly shaped ice cubes hourly; thus rendering the ice cutters obsolete.

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