Day 944: Eight Obsolete Jobs That Are Worse Than Yours

originally published August 1, 2014

More so than usual, lately I have been seriously reconsidering my vocation. Not this writing gig; despite the meagre pay and sparsity of days off (so far, zero), I adore absorbing airborne globs of trivia then regurgitating them here for you, like a mama-bird spewing sports facts into her babies’ hungry maws (“the biggest football blowout in history was Georgia Tech over Cumberland, 222-0! Eat up, kids!”).

No, it’s my monotonous day-job that’s presently slurping the syrup from my emotional pancakes. Six years, one university degree and over 944,000 hand-plucked words later and still I slog paper in and out of printers – a lackey for drones, with no seats open at the drones’ table. At least none I’ve been invited to fill. I won’t lie; some days my spirit lies limp like a flaccid balloon nine days after the last crumb of birthday cake has been crammed into a gullet and converted into poo.

But I suppose I should be thankful even to have employment. Far from a blunt and clunky segue into the state of today’s economy, I’m instead hip-checking my way onto the road of vocations past: a glimpse into the job-sheet for the career counsellors of yore. For those similarly disenfranchised with their present stagnancy, you are but one quick time-machine away from such lucrative and dynamic opportunities as the following:

Do you like to meet new people? Are you confident in your ability to see at night? Perhaps you like playing with fire and you’re after a job that pays better than ‘arbitrary arsonist’. Back before London loaded up its curbs with street lighting, the link-boy (or Glym-jack) could be hired for a lowly farthing to escort you on your way, torch in hand.

This may be an obsolete profession today, but a number of houses in Bath, England still have link extinguishers (pictured above) fastened to their outsides, so I suppose an enterprising young entrepreneur could find a way to disable the electrical grid in Bath and resurrect this once-dead job.

If you fancy yourself a jambe-de-la-truite (*not a real expression) of the streets, you can be a night-time link-boy and a daytime crossing sweeper. The crossing sweeper was a fixture in Victorian traffic, shooing away dust and detritus (usually horse poop) in front of well-dressed ladies as they crossed an intersection. Again, the pay was lousy – in fact, crossing sweepers made as much as intersection squeegee windshield-cleaners today: a tip if they were lucky. But maybe you’d be lucky!

The sad truth is, if this vocation ever comes back in style, you’ll be facing competition from the litany of professional housekeepers and Olympic curlers. Those people know how to sweep with purpose.

If you love to hear the sound of your own voice and also spend an inordinate amount of time around illiterate people, then a scrivener is the career for you. Back before public servants, accountants, and a formal education system, the average gap-toothed yokel would hire a scrivener to read and respond to official documents. This is a career that blends the visceral adrenaline-rush of secretarial work with the teeth-gnashing frenzy of being a notary.

Sounds like tedious work, but at least you’ll get a smidgen more respect than someone who handles feces all day.

Scoring a job at the castle might sound like a bassoon-blare of prestige and honor, at least until you’re scrubbing his highness’s regal tuchus with a rag on a stick. Ah, but the Groom of the Stool was actually a revered title in the age of Henry VIII. Sure, he may have been responsible for diverting the royal turds to their final destination (which I assume would be the river from which the serfs would gather their drinking water), but he was also a true insider, and not just in that gross way that involves thorough wiping.

The Groom of the Stool became the king’s most trusted personal secretary, executing  a number of prestigious tasks from the royal bedchamber. Sir Anthony Denny was with Henry VIII at the very end, and like others in this line of work, he was a full-on nobleman. A nobleman with king-poo under his fingernails, but a nobleman nonetheless.

The herb strewer had a far more palatable job in relation to the perpetual stench milling about the palace. Her job was to scatter flowers and herbs in any room that might witness a royal footstep, in an elaborate effort to cover up the foul odors that would routinely waft through the windows from the excrement-heavy Thames river. When William IV was crowned in 1831 the position was banished, though the descendants of Anne Fellowes, the last woman to hold the position, still claim dibs for their eldest unmarried daughter, should the job become available again.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to have the connections to make it as a strewer of herbs, you might have to settle for being a gong farmer, which is way less cool and clangy than it sounds. The gong farmer cleaned out cesspits in the middle of the night, leaving the common folk to spend less time mourning how stinky life was before the invention of indoor plumbing.

A donkey puncher operated a steam donkey, a machine frequently used in the logging industry. For those of you familiar with the modern term ‘donkey punch’, the tedium of this career option may disappoint. For those of you who aren’t (hi, mom!), feel free to read up on it. It’s not a very lucrative pastime.

If you’re swift with a pair of scissors but not allowed to practice hairdressing in your state or province because of some horrific shearing accident, you might still be able to find work as a lamp trimmer. This is a seafaring job, so hopefully you have the stomach for rolling waves and the calmness of spirit to deftly direct your blades while a storm is beating its fists against the hull.

The lamp trimmer had to maintain the wick inside of oil lamps. An ideally-cut wick would create a clean, bright flame, whereas a hastily snipped one would burn dim and smokey. This job was so essential to nautical tradition that ship-board electricians were colloquially called lamp trimmers for years after oil lamps had become obsolete.

Another high-ranked royal position, long since filed under ‘D’ for Dead Careers is the whipping boy. During the 15th and 16th centuries, these were often the only friends a young English prince would have. They came from high status families and were raised as princely companions. The down-side occurred during lessons. When the prince messed up his work, slacked off on his studies or spent class time fashioning parchment airplanes with ‘Thou Shalt Eateth Me’ written upon them, they couldn’t be punished. The whipping boy’s job was to take the prince’s punishment.

Think about it – your lone best friend, and you’ve got to take the brunt for all the rage he concocts in the hearts of his tutors. The lone perk to the job might show up in adulthood; King Charles I’s whipping boy, William Murray, was made First Earl of Dysart when he was older. Call it a sweet retirement package.

So perhaps my job isn’t so bad. No… no, it really is. My job is anesthesia for the mind, an antibiotic for an infection of a busy intellect. It’s the miracle cure for hope and the giver of a bounty of uninspired ennui. But I guess it beats being a gong farmer.

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