Can You Name These Pre-WWII Jobs?

Zoe Samuel

Image: Getty Images / Valueline / Reg Speller

About This Quiz

An astonishing statistic is that before World War I, about a third of British people worked "in service": that is, they were some kind of domestic servant. The numbers were never so high the USA, thanks to its younger society and different culture, but they weren't a million miles off, especially in the South where large populations were legally kept out of different types of jobs.

Now that figure has dropped exponentially, and that's just one industry! Similar large changes occurred in other industries, such as farming – which probably saw the largest losses thanks to the advent of the combine harvester and modern fertilizers – and also manufacturing, construction, coal mining and many other areas of employment. Indeed, while the decline of coal is often treated like a recent phenomenon, actually the number of miners in the USA peaked in the 1920s!

Just as many industries have been changed by automation, so many have been changed by the fact of simply becoming obsolete. There is not so much demand for blacksmiths in an environment where everyone has a car, or for a projectionist in a movie theater that uses a digital copy of the movie instead of a reel. That means some jobs have simply vanished. Would you recognize them if you saw them now?

What job involved scrubbing pots in the kitchen of fine houses?

The scullery maid was below the kitchen maid. Her job was to scrub pots and pans, which was much harder before the advent of modern cleaning materials. She also did other grunt work and probably worked 14 hours a day, six days a week. It's surely a good thing that most jobs are not like this any longer!

Before radar, there was a job of trying to hear enemy aircraft. What was it called?

They used acoustic mirrors and listening devices to try to hear these aircraft. It was incredibly ineffective, and the invention of radar came as a great blessing!

What job was this person doing to help get messages between military units?

Radio was terrible back in the beginning of its life, and it was often impossible to be sure whether you'd hear a peep out of your friends. Plus, without encryption, your enemies would also hear you. Thus, the dispatch rider could take your orders safely!

What job involving metal such as copper, but not horses, was similar to being a blacksmith?

The redsmith worked with copper, which nowadays is probably all over your house, hidden in the walls. Machines do the redsmith's job now, but before they came along, he was quite essential.

Who would sell you bits and bobs such as cloth, buttons, needles, etc.?

A haberdasher was someone who sold you, well, all the things you would buy at Michael's now! If you needed a button, a needle, thread, a scrap of fabric, that's who you would go to see.

Before supermarkets, who made sure you could buy enough food, if there was no farmer's market nearby?

The badger would buy things from the farmer, then mark them up and sell them in town. After all, getting milk, eggs, flour and so on to town is not easy, and it would not be efficient for the farmers to do it.

What job, now automated, was necessary to ensure the railways could operate?

The signalman is not the only person whose job went the way of the dodo. During the steam era, there were also a couple of gents whose job was to shovel coal all day to keep the train going. It was not a healthy job, and it's a good thing that many trains are now electric!

What job now done by machines was necessary for getting quality stone?

A quarryman was the guy who would cut large blocks of stone to be taken out of the quarry to where the masons would cut them to the proper specifications. Think of the quarryman like the rock farmer and the mason like the chef!

By what name was the job of scavenging for salable items in the mud of urban rivers known by?

A mudlark was considered a very low sort of job. Before cities had good trash-collection systems, though, rivers were where a lot of trash ended up, and you could find good things in the mud when the water levels were lower. This job has been banned, thankfully – and the rivers in major cities are mostly cleaner than you'd think!

What job is this person doing that was not strictly legal during the interwar period?

Some people went to a speakeasy to get their booze on during Prohibition. Others wanted to drink at home, and the hush shopkeeper would happily oblige them… on the DL, of course.

What is the job of this deckhand on river and canal boats?

A hobbler was a person who walked on the decks of canal boats and towboats. Their job was to make sure that barges didn't bang into each other, as well as mooring them. Nowadays, thanks to sonar and other technology, we don't need to pay people to do this dangerous role.

What job involved selling this product now sold in a supermarket?

The eggler would bring eggs to market to be sold. Carrying eggs is obviously quite specialized (hence the advice not to put them all in one basket), and not everyone had the right cartons to transport them safely. Enter the eggler!

What is this pre-war debt collector called?

This word comes from the Latin for catching a chick. The idea is that those who owe tax or debts are slippery and as hard to catch as a chicken that doesn't want to come in!

What is the name for this job involving chopping logs?

Before hackers were on the internet, they were at logging sites. They performed a similar function to a quarryman. After all, the tree could not simply be transported when it was felled. It had to be cut to a reasonable size first.

What is this mathematician called who did complex calculations?

Computers were mostly women and did complex math at speeds that would boggle the mind now! This meant when computers (the machine) came along, they were the primary workforce. Indeed, in the early days of what we now call computers, IBM once fired its male workforce to hire women because they were cheaper.

Who did you hire to come to your house and make sure everything was on time?

The clock winder was someone who came to large houses to make sure the clocks were correctly calibrated (since smaller house could not afford many clocks). They were also needed in public establishments. These days, of course, clocks can be kept in time without a special person winding them.

What job is happily now obsolete due to increased public health awareness?

The cigarette girl was a familiar figure on the streets back when it was harder to get pre-rolled cigarettes and almost everyone smoked. Now, of course, there are rules about where you can sell so-called cancer sticks, and far fewer people touch them.

What job here is required at the newspaper printing press?

Typesetting was a hard job. You had to put all the letters in the right setup for each page – but backward, because it would print a mirror image! Then it went into the printing presses for the papers to be made. Now it is mostly an automated and digital process.

What lumber-related job is happening here?

The log driver's job was to get logs downriver from where they were cut to where they were needed. It was insanely dangerous, and thankfully, now it is done by trucks, trains and ships.

What job did many people have in this sort of place?

It's probably still the case that most laundries are manned (so to speak) by women. Back before everyone had their own washing machine, sometimes people would take larger items to the laundress. It was a ghastly and thankless job, consisting of backbreaking manual labor for pennies. Some of the women who did it were among those who joined the Suffragettes, as they knew equal rights would help them get better conditions.

What role is necessitated by the existence of this machine?

The typewriter was actually much more robust than the early computers. However, it wasn't nearly as good in the long run, and it did sometimes break. Enter the typewriter repair guy, which now is a specialist and niche job.

What's job is being done beside this road?

The toll collector is a mostly automated role these days. Thanks to digital scanners, it's possible for cars to go through tolls and auto-pay. This is good news as toll collectors suffered serious health issues from being around all those fumes, especially back when cars were even dirtier.

What job is being done in this elevator?

Operating an early elevator wasn't actually entirely easy. You had to pull a lever to start and stop it, and you had to make sure you lined it up with the floors. Not everyone was mobile enough, hence the lift operator.

Who is this person bringing your dairy products?

People often get milk from supermarkets and local stores now. However, before everyone had a fridge, getting milk was a daily job, and this made a market for a daily delivery service from places that did have refrigeration.

By what interesting name are these railroad workers known?

This was a slang term for "section hands," whose job was to lay and maintain sections of railroads. They were named for their "gandy," a long tool they used to get the rails into the right place, and the motion they had to use to do it.

What job was necessary to get you a nice chilled drink?

Before everyone had a freezer, you got your ice from an iceman or ice-cutter. They would sell a large block to the hotel, restaurant, etc., and then pieces would be cut off this in order to make the ice small enough to go in your drink. Before widespread air-conditioning, the ice-cutter was one fellow everyone was happy to see!

What ghastly role is this poor person about to do?

Before teaching hospitals and medical students could get bodies the proper way – that is, by getting people to sign permission slips before their death – there was a thriving market for "resurrectionists." These were grave-robbers who were there not for the money, but for the bodies. They would sell recently buried people's corpses to doctors to learn on!

What job is this woman doing in this office?

Before the photocopier, if you wanted lots of copies, you had to have someone whose job was to replicate the document manually. Typist pools were thus very common, which means of course that typos could pop up and be quite funny! The vast majority of these workers were women, as it was a job they were allowed to do.

Who is this poor guy who spends his time in the street?

The rat catcher has now mostly been supplanted by traps and proper exterminators. Before we had the ability to target poison to rats themselves, though, they were all over the darn place, and that meant having a person whose job was to catch them.

Who's this person at your window?

A knocker-upper wasn't there to impregnate anyone! They were there to wake you at an agreed time. It was a service you needed before alarm clocks became wildly available.

Who is this person at the bank?

The teller is still in the bank, but she is now a much rarer sight thanks to the ATM or "cashpoint," as it is also known. Before the machine, all withdrawals involved a human interaction. This was yet another job deemed suitable for women, hence overwhelmingly done by them.

Who is this neat-looking fellow?

The butler was the head of the staff of a large household. A few people still have one, but these days cleaning and household management are very different. As a result, the person who might once have been more of a butler figure is more a manager or steward type job.

Who is this man going into this hole?

There are still coal miners… for now. 76,000 Americans work in coal mines these days. For contrast, Arby's restaurant chain employs 80,000, while the solar industry employs 350,000! The peak of coal mining employment in the USA was the 1920s, making this primarily a pre-war job! After this point, oil and natural gas became dominant. It is now cheaper to build a new solar plant than to run an existing coal plant, meaning this job is unlikely to survive.

Who looked after this street lamp?

The lamp lighter's job was to light the gas lamps. Of course, gas is highly flammable and not very reliable compared to the electric light, which means this job has also ceased to be.

Who is this dirty fellow?

The chimneys of today are much cleaner due to filters and cleaner-burning materials. They do still have sweeps, but nothing like as many as in the pre-war period when fire was the main way most people heated their home.

What entertainer might be helping out the workers in this factory?

Before there was such a thing as radio, factory jobs were even more boring and unpleasant than many still are. That's why the wiser foremen hired a lector. His or her job was to stand on a dais and read the papers, books, stories and so on, to entertain the worker. After all, a bored worker makes more mistakes and moves slower.

Who has the utterly repetitive job being shown here?

The pinsetter had to do this job before the introduction of the automated machine. It was hard work and very repetitive, though it was at least in a safe indoor environment, unlike many of the jobs we've discussed!

Who is this man in this river?

Prospecting is mostly done using machines that can detect tiny amounts of gold by testing rock samples. However, a while back, it was much more common to go off and pan in a river to try to find nuggets and flakes of the stuff. This was called prospecting, and very few people ever made a living at it.

Who is this man with this horse?

The blacksmith was the essential cog in every village and farm. He didn't just keep horses shod; he made and mended yokes, spokes, joints and more. There were so many blacksmiths, hence why "Smith" is the most common English surname.

Who is this person at this telephone exchange?

Before the telephone exchange was automated, the switchboard operator had to connect one person to another. You would call the exchange, tell them who you wanted to speak to and they would plug you in. It was yet another job that has gone the way of the dodo thanks to technology.

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