19 Strange Professions of Your Ancestors That Don’t Exist Today

These Weird Careers Are Now Ancient History

Strange Jobs of Your Ancestors That No Longer Exist

Photo credit: roletroll.com

Everyone loves to complain about their jobs from time to time. And while it’s true that horrible bosses and lazy coworkers can be the bane of our existence, we definitely have it a lot better than our ancestors did back in the day. And while organizing your family history research, we’re sure you’ve come across some common jobs of yesteryear that were either fairly gross, tedious, dangerous and even downright scary.

These strange careers of your ancestors will make your cushy office job with that annoying cubicle mate seem like a beach vacation! 

19 Jobs of Your Ancestors That Are Now Defunct

1.) Lamplighter

Lamplighter in Munich

Photo credit: Stripes.com

Before electricity was discovered, lamplighters would use ladders and long poles to douse, refuel and light lamps.

2.) Switchboard Operator

Before telephones could call and connect to people directly, switchboard operators would manually connect calls by inserting phone plugs into the jacks for both ends of the line.

3.) Resurrectionist 

Back in the day when universities needed cadavers for educational purposes, resurrectionists would, well, steal bodies from graveyards and sell them to medical schools.

4.) Chimney Sweep

Before machine-based cleaning options came available, chimney ashes and soot were once always cleaned and inspected by chimney sweeps who spent their days climbing atop homes to do so.

5.) Powder Monkey

Powder Monkey Vintage Photo

Photo credit: zazzle.co.nz

During the seafaring days, young boys aboard warships would quickly stuff gunpowder back into cannons.

6.) Hemp Dresser

Hemp Dresser Vintage Photo

Photo credit: Library of Congress

When it was legal for young children to work in factories, they would be called upon to separate the coarse parts of hemp.

7.) Rat Catcher

Rat Catchers

Photo credit: vintag.es

Holding the job title of rat catcher back in the day was considered pretty important since keeping the rat population under control helped stop disease — especially the Black Plague — from spreading.

8.) Ice Cutter

Ice Cutters Harvesting Ice

Photo credit: FoundMichigan.org

Before modern refrigerators existed, your ice box and cellar used to require fresh ice to keep food cold. Thankfully, ice cutters worked in very harsh weather conditions to saw blocks of ice for this important purpose.

9.) Phrenologist 


Photo credit: neurosurgery.org

There was once a time when people would “read” your intelligence by measuring your skull and the shape of your head. This ridiculous practice was later dismissed as pseudoscience.

10.) Knocker-Upper

Knocker Upper

Photo credit: SavvyRest.com

Think of a knocker-upper as your human alarm clock. Before the existence of alarm clocks, knocker-uppers would wake people up so they wouldn’t be late for jobs. They’d do so by knocking on windows with long sticks, pebbles and clubs.

11.) Pinsetter

Pinboys Pinsetter Job

Photo credit: “Pinboys nclc.04636″. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

There was once a time when young boys would work at bowling alleys; setting up pins between each frame. This happened up until mechanical pinsetters took their place in 1936.

12.) Leech Collector

Leech Collector Vintage Ad

Photo credit: TopTenz.net

Leech collectors once set out to cull leaches from the ground for medical use and sell them to doctors. This was during a time when bloodletting was a common practice to cure practically everything that ailed you.

13.) Town Crier

Town Crier 1879

Photo credit: Frank Leslie on Etsy

Before broadcast news was a thing, men with big, loud voices (town criers), would stand on street corners shouting important news to the townspeople.

14.) Nomenclator

Nomenclator Vintage Job

Photo credit: Brainz.org

Young boys used to follow their masters around all day (and most importantly, at parties) to remind them of the names and professions of each person they met. This was a very important job before phone books and mobile phones existed.

15.) Lector

Before radio and iTunes, well-spoken gentlemen used to read to gigantic rooms filled with factory workers all day long to keep them entertained while they slaved away. At times, the workers actually found and paid for the entertainment themselves.

16.) Barber Surgeon

In Europe, barber surgeons would look after soldiers in the battlefield. Not only did they cut hair, but they were also trained to cut limbs when needed.

17.) Computer


Human Computer

Photo credit: APS.org

Before your iMac existed, a computer was once a job title for a person (typically an intelligent, young woman) who did computations and calculations without using advanced technology.

18.) Airplane Listener

Airplane Listener Vintage Job

Photo credit: OliverSmith.cc

Soldiers once used acoustic mirrors and other listening devices —  like the one you see here — to listen for enemy airplanes before radar technology existed.

19.) Plague Doctor

And last but not least, the strangest (and most scary!) profession that no longer exists is that of a plague doctor. They wore this terrifying uniform back in the 1600s. The reason for the beak mask was to store spices to purify air and the wand was used to touch plagued people without having to actually reach out and touch them.

Did any of your ancestors hold these strange jobs, or others that aren’t listed here? Tell us in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “19 Strange Professions of Your Ancestors That Don’t Exist Today

  1. Patti D

    My paternal great grandfather was a lamplighter in Baltimore. Family story is that he worked very hard on a political campaign and all he got out of it was a lamplighter job. I have always wondered if there are records in Baltimore of the men who held these jobs. Anyone know if there are records?

  2. Jo Henn

    Oh, now you’re trying to make me feel old! I was a long distance switchboard operator for General Telephone in Port Clinton Ohio in high school and summers during college in the late1970’s & early 1980’s. Outside of the outfits, it looked pretty much like that. Red cord sets alternated with white cord sets -looked like spaghetti when they were all up./ in use.

    You had to have good ears and good (fast) math skills when you picked up a call from a pay phone to connect long distance. First,my oh found out where they were calling, and looked up the charge. When you told them, you hoped the put the money in slowly so you could count: nickels were one beep, dimes were two beeps, and quarters were five fast beeps. The first charge was for three minutes, then you had to keep interrupting them for more money (unless they called collect, but then you still had to keep track of the minutes an money because the one who accepted the charges could ask for the total at the end. A lot of the pay phone calls were to Mexico , South America, or Poland, and then we had to connect with international operators too so it was a plus if you spoke more than one language — I had high school & college Spanish.

    See what you made me remember, lol?

  3. Annick H.

    As late as the early 1960’s, in my small village in Lorraine, France, we still had some sort of a town crier. He was also the “Garde Champetre” and carried a big drum over his uniform. He stoped at a few strategic locations in the village that extended on 2 very long streets and beat his drum to alert everyone to come and listen to him deliver the news. Since the “Garde Champetre” was not usually chosen for his loud voice, but to police around the village, his voice was not always the best to deliver the news!

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