A favorite cartoon of mine shows a bathroom conversation. The Kleenex is saying, “I have the worst job in the world!” The toilet paper replies, “Yeah, right.”
Somehow that cartoon led to my perusing the web and my library for odd and obsolete jobs. In the latter category, I first came across some rather unsettling candidates. They’re unsettling not because they are so old, but because I’ve actually known people who had those antique jobs. And I’m not that old.
For instance, back when I was a boy, my father was a Milkman. For some reason that job is considered by the pundits who write about such things as practically antediluvian. Up at 3 AM, he grumpily trudged off to make sure everyone had their dairy products in time for breakfast. Not the worst job in the world, but cold manual labor when sensible people were asleep.
Then again, a relative of mine was a Pinsetter in his youth. Back before AMF automated the bowling alleys, young boys were given the (very low-paid) job of manually setting up the pins and rolling the ball back to the player. They had to be lightning fast as they had more than one lane to tend to and it was considered sport to try and hit the pinsetter with your ball before he jumped clear.
But let’s look at some jobs that deserve to be called old. Every so often you’ll hear someone refer to the refrigerator as the “icebox.” There’s a good reason for that. Once upon a time, before refrigeration, there was such a thing in pretty much every city and town home. It kept the food cold enough not to spoil (or not too much, anyway).
The system worked like this: Back in those days there used to be a tough job, that of the Ice Cutter. In winter, when the lakes froze down a foot or so, the ice cutter would take his saw and cut out blocks of ice. These would be taken to straw-insulated “ice houses,” where they would last through the warm season. Next step involved a man called the Iceman. (Friend of Eugene O’Neill?) Once the temperature rose, each day the iceman would go to the ice house and load up his wagon with blocks of ice. He’d deliver them to his customers, who’d put a block of ice in the upper boxes of their ice box. The food went in the lower box, where the falling cold air preserved it.
Going back a few more years, we find gas-lighted cities. Naturally, each lamp had to be lighted by the romantically remembered Lamplighters. But some jobs had no romance at all. No matter what the lamplighters did, off the main streets the garbage collected and the rats scampered. Which produced another Victorian job, the Ratcatcher. Armed with little more than courage and a well-trained terrier, the ratcatcher roamed the back alleys and the sewers, catching and killing rats with his bare (well-bitten) hands.
And speaking of sewers, ever heard of a Tosher? In jolly old Victorian London, toshers were sewer scavengers, making a living by scouring the sewers for anything they could pawn or sell. Toshers had their own recognized, and fiercely-defended, incredibly smelly territories. Likewise the Mudlarks. (At least their name sounds fun, even if their job emphatically was not.)
Coal, cargo, and valuables were always falling off the ships, boats, and barges that plied the Thames. However, as the Thames is tidal and as neither of the Embankments was yet built, there were wide mud flats exposed at each low tide. This was the domain of the mudlarks. Bits of metal, lumps of coal, plus the occasional bauble, were the targets of those willing to slog through the clinging, reeking mud. Remember that before they rebuilt the medieval London sewer system, London’s privies emptied into the Thames.
Not all Victorian jobs were as awful as that. At the time, English workers faced a novel problem. The Industrial Revolution brought Britain thousands of brand new jobs in brand new factories. Workers who had been used to drifting to work as the sun and spirit moved them found themselves faced with hard new bosses who demanded that the workers arrive punctually on clock time, each and every day. The Revolution hadn’t yet produced its millions of cheap alarm clocks. What to do?
The solution was the delightfully-named Knockers Up. For a trifling fee, these hardy folk would walk the morning streets, equipped with long poles and pea shooters. Depending on what floor you lived on, they would either tap on your window with their pole or shoot at it with their pea shooter to wake you up in time for work.
I found lots of other entertainingly bizarre jobs. (There was once a high-status position in Henry VIII’s court called the Groom of the Stool, who helped the king wipe His royal bum after he did His royal business in the privy.) But I’ll close with one I’d like to discuss simply because of its wonderful name: the Resurrectionist. Despite its name, it was not a religious post. Rather, it was (sort of) a medical one.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was hard for medical schools to legally obtain cadavers. Executed criminals were fair game, but there was such a popular horror at the idea of dissection that the ghoulish crowds attending a public execution would attack anyone they thought had designs on the corpse.
However, there was a handy loophole in the law. Technically, once in the ground, your dear mother’s corpse didn’t belong to you. In fact, it didn’t legally belong to much of anybody. There was a minor fine for disturbing a grave, but none at all for body snatching.
Hence, a new profession arose — that of resurrectionist. In theory, it went like this: Hearing from a local grave-digger that there had been an internment, the resurrectionists would dig up the coffin, strip the corpse, and take it away to sell to some unscrupulous medico. The reason they stripped the corpse was to avoid any charge of thievery. Corpses were often buried with jewelry and the like, an obvious temptation. However, stealing them could result in a capital charge and the resurrectionist being planted himself.
It was a wonderful profession in one sense, since the demand always outraced the supply and the price was well worth the effort. Still, there were temptations. Finding a corpse well decked out in pricy clothes and sporting some handsome jewelry, many succumbed…and paid the price. A worse temptation arose when your money ran out but there were no fresh corpses to steal. That was the dilemma that trapped the famous Burke and Hare. They were two enterprising Scotsmen with a demanding clientele and no merchandise. So they simply decided to manufacture their own. In 10 months, they dispatched 16 victims (their favorite method was suffocation). Eventually they were caught, tried, and executed, having accomplished the nearly impossible.
They had managed to darken the name of a profession no one believed could get any darker.