Terrifying jobs that no longer exist, thankfully


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“When I grow up, I want to capture and sell rats from pubs!” Said no one in the 21st century ever (well, at least almost no one, we suppose).

While the age of the machine and automation taking away some jobs has made some people uncomfortable, we all have to admit that we’re better off without some of these jobs. We don’t think OSHA would approve of having little boys stuffing gunpowder into a canon, after all. Here are some of the most dangerous and, well, odd, jobs that we’re really glad we don’t have anymore.

Roman bust hairstyle
Tetraktys / Wiki Commons

1. Ornatrice

If Covid didn’t make you appreciate hairdressers, just wait until you here about ancient Roman hairdressers, called ornatrices. These were enslaved women who were in charge of making their mistress’s hair look as ornate and “fashionable” as possible. Part of that was often dying their hair (did we mention that hair dye back then was made of rotten leeches, pigeon pop, urine, dead leeches, among other nasty stuff?).

Related: The mullet is back, but it’s been around for centuries

Lawrence Alma-Tadema / Wiki Commons

2. Ewerer

Ewerers were medieval workers whose main job was making nobles have the best bath time possible. They got them hot water for bathing, warm water for washing their hands, dried their clothes, and, of course, drew them a bath fit for a king (sometimes literally).

Franz Anton Maulbertsch / Wiki Commons

3. Barber-surgeon

Hairdressers weren’t the only ones who had the short end of the sheers. You’ve heard of barbers, but what about barber-surgeons? They did all the things you’d think a barber would: lice removal, hair trimming, beard trimming, and, you know teeth removal and bloodletting. If you’ve ever wondered about what that old timely barber pole is about, it’s actually a symbol of the latter stuff on that list: brass for the basin used to collect patient blood, blue for bandages, and red, of course, for blood.


Poison taster
Giorces / Wiki Commons

4. Poison taster

Personally, getting paid to eat food doesn’t sound too bad. But when the title’s food/poison taster? Maybe not so much. Since the advent of kings and queens, poison tasters would taste a noble’s food for poison placed there by enemies. Probably not too surprisingly, this does exist to some extent today. Actually, at the Summer Olympics in 2008, mice tasted athletes’ food to ensure it wasn’t poisoned.

Necessary woman Bridget Holmes
John Riley / Wiki Commons

5. Necessary woman

Luckily, “necessary woman” is no longer a necessary job. These poor women emptied chamber pots (aka toilets). For those lucky enough to serve royal and nobles, the pay was pretty decent (£60), and it came with free lodging and supplies.

Rat catchers
State Library of New South Wales / Wiki Commons

6. Rat catcher

City dwellers know all too well how nasty rats can be. Enter (or we guess, exit): Rat catchers. These gross, often disease-ridden pests were (and arguably are, still) a menace to society in the Victorian era. So, rat catchers would go to pubs and other public places, trap mice, and often entertain passersby by doing tricks like grabbing as many rats as they could in one hand and let them crawl up and down their arms.

Human computer for NASA
Witch hunter
Wiki Commons

8. Witch hunter

Ah, witch hunters. While this is one past job that many people are probably realize that this was more of a side hustle than a full-time occupation. Still, these side hustlers did hustle hard, with many taking their job a bit too seriously. Case in point: Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witch Finder Generall” of England. He tortured and killed around 230 people in just three years, from 1644 to 1647. Makes you a bit more appreciative of less murder-y side hustles like Uber, huh?

Lewis Wickes Hine / Wiki Commons

9. Pinsetter

While bowling alleys may not be as fashionable as they once were, they sure are easier to maintain! Back before the advent of mechanical pin setters in 1936, someone (often young boys) called a pinsetter had to manually reset the pins.

Badger at a farmer's market
Dr. Fischer Kunstauktionen / Wiki Commons

10. Badger

No, we’re not talking about the animal! A badger was a farmer’s market middle man for city slickers back in the 1880s. They would buy food from a farmer, go to the city, and “badger” city dwellers to buy their fresh foods.

Chimney sweep
Museo Sonogno / Wiki Commons

11. Chimney sweep

While this job may have looked happy-go-lucky on “Mary Poppins, it was anything but. Chimney sweeps got soot buildup out of chimneys. Many chimney “masters” pretty much bought poor kids off parents unable to take care of them since kids could fit in the chimneys better than adults. Unsurprisingly, these children often suffered from horrendous health issues.

American Institute of Phrenology (New York, 1893)
The British Library

12. Phrenologist

If you recall your intro to psych class, a phrenologist measured peoples’ intelligence by the shape of their heads. This pseudoscience was based in racist beliefs about the differences in skill shapes between white and Black people, among other since debunked myths.

Whipping boy
Walter S. Stacey / Wiki Commons

13. Whipping boy

whipping boy was a young prince’s designated “friend” who was whipped every time the prince misbehaved. While this sounds downright awful, many whipping boys were given some sweet perks in their adult lives, such as Charles I designating his whipping boy as the first Earl of Dysart back in 1643.

Powder monkey
The Photographic History of The Civil War / Wiki Commons
Joseph Wright of Derby / Wiki Commons

15. Alchemist

Harkening back to pseudoscience-based jobs, alchemists attempted to turn pretty much anything and everything into gold. While we now know that this medieval practice doesn’t work (shocker), it is worth pointing out that Roberty Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry, pretty much stole an alchemist’s own research for several of his own.

Dog in front of a church
diegograndi / Wiki Commons
Section hands
Edward Hungerford / Wiki Commons

17. Section hands

Section hands were railroad workers who maintained tracks before machines took over the job. Although John Henry the gandy man does have a right to it, gandy dancers was a common and prerogative slang term for this physically exhausting, often dangerous work.

A knocker-upper in Leeuwarden, (1947)
Nationaal Archief

18. Knocker-upper

No, not that type of knocking up. These knocker-uppers were the 1800s version of alarm clocks. They’d literally knock on their clients’ windows, using pea-shooters, really long poles, or even a good old fashion tap with their knuckles to ensure the client got up in time for work.

United States Library of Congress

19. Hush shopkeeper

During Prohibition, a hush shopkeeper was essentially the gatekeeper of bootlegged alcohol for customers who were looking to wet their whistle by buying liquor at their local shop.

Butcher shop in 1914 Iowa
Peter Yezek / Wiki Commons

20. Caddy butcher

Caddy butchers worked in both the U.S. and the U.K. all the way until the 1940s. They sold horse meat, which was considerably cheaper than beef, venison, and other proteins.

Man selling ice in 1938 Louisiana
Russell Lee / Wiki Commons

21. Ice cutter

Before there were ice road truckers, we had the equally dangerous and crucial ice cutters. Back before your fridges and freezers were capable of storing ice, lakes were the main source of these luxurious ice slabs. So, you’d have to find a good ice cutter who could acquire the ice for you.

Preserved coppersmith shop in Germany from the 1850s
Heinz-Josef Lücking / Wiki Commons

22. Redsmith

redsmith, or coppersmith, was an expert crafter of brass, copper, and other zinc alloys. They made and fixed household goods and tools for over 6,000 before the industrial revolution made this profession all but obsolete. Now, most coppersmiths are artists instead of toolmakers.

Scissors grinder
William Edward Fretwell / Wiki Commons

23. Scissors grinder

scissors grinder helped grind and give new life to a variety of sharp, pointy objects, like knives, scissors, and other tools. They used an abrasive wheel that they traveled door-to-door with to sharpen peoples’ pointy stuff. They managed to stay relevant until the 1970s, when it became much cheaper and easier to buy new tools than to sharpen old tools.

Johan Larsson / Wiki Commons

24. Billy boy

One of the many jobs for youngsters was the billy boys profession. Billy boys pretty much made tea for those who worked at railway yards, blacksmith sites, construction sites, and more. They used “billycans,” which were lightweight pots, to boil water over a fire for tea.

Leech collectors
Robert Havell / Wiki Commons

25. Leech collector

Barbers weren’t the only ones draining people of blood. Back in medieval-er times, the leech collector went around, well, collecting leeches and selling them to doctors, who would then use them for bloodletting procedures done to their patients.

Procrastination Toad

26. Toad doctor

Leeches were in good company before modern medicine. In the 1600s, when leeches just wouldn’t do, a toad doctor would use dried or powdered toads to treat inflammation, headaches, and a slew of skin conditions. For some reason, these doctors believed toads had special healing powers they believed could cure their patients.

Crossing sweeper
William Powell Frith / Wiki Commons

27. Crossing sweeper

Proving once again that the 19th century was much grosser than modern times, the crossing sweeper literally walked in front of rich people to clear a path down the street from them. The wealthy hired these folks to avoid coming in contact with waste and other yucky things, as well as to keep their clothes clean while they were out and about.
Related: 8 tips to keep your home cleaner longer

Hablot Knight Browne / Wiki Commons

28. Resurrectionist

Last but not least, enter the resurrectionist In the 18th century, modern medicine was becoming a thing, and doctors and medical students needed dead bodies to study and dissect to learn more about how the human body worked. (And yes, that sometimes meant unearthing already buried bodies when demand for cadavers was high.) So, resurrectionists acted like a creepier and nastier Amazon Prime by exhuming the recently dead and delivering them to medical professionals and students.


This article was produced and syndicated by MediaFeed.org.


Kaitlyn Farley

Kaitlyn is MediaFeed’s senior editor. She is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, specializing in social justice and investigative reporting. She has worked at various radio stations and newsrooms, covering higher-education, local politics, natural disasters and investigative and watchdog stories related to Title IX and transparency issues.