Our concept of a strange occupation has changed over the centuries. What may cause us to raise an eyebrow today would have been perfectly acceptable a thousand years ago. For example, we might balk at the notion of nude yoga but, in ancient Greece, athletes often exercised sans clothing.
Certain jobs developed due to necessity, societal changes or scientific innovation, while others became redundant due to the same. The industrial revolution saw many people lose their jobs, contributing to high poverty rates.
Several households suddenly saw their incomes halved or even quartered. They say necessity is the mother of invention. The revolution may have cost many their jobs, but it also saw the creation of several new ones, jobs that machines could not yet do. And so were born some of the weirdest jobs of all time.
The Victorians are infamous for many reasons (prudishness and unapologetic use of child labor being two such things), but you can’t say they weren’t creative. If you ever wondered how people got to work on time before the invention and widespread use of alarm clocks, some of them, it seems, had ‘Knocker-Ups’ to thank.
The humble Knocker-Up’s primary skill was to be able to accurately tell time without a watch; using this special ability, he would walk around the neighborhood with either a short truncheon or a long pole and knock on a client’s door or a window on a higher floor. They would keep knocking until they were sure their clients were awake, receiving a few shillings for their troubles.
Often, London’s policemen (commonly known as ‘Bobbies’) would pursue this as a secondary profession. Ever an enterprising lot, they would wake up clients to earn a few extra shillings while on their rounds.
You may whistle while you work, but for some, whistling is work. Did you know that 36% of the world’s population can’t whistle at all? And of those that can, only 11% claim to be very good at it? Professional whistlers are highly sought after in the entertainment industry, as there are so few of them.
Like any musical profession, whistling is hard to break into, more so because it’s such a small, albeit cheerful, club. Those who do make it big enjoy all the trappings of a famous musician’s life, including, perhaps, groupies and rampant substance abuse.
Dog Food Taster
Several brands of dog food claim that their products are the best tasting, but since their target demographic lacks the ability to speak, whose word do we take? Our fellow humans’, apparently. Horrifying though it may sound, one of the requirements of the position is ‘being human’.
It’s far fetched to presume that human dog-food tasters would be able to tell whether their canine customers would like a particular product or not.
Dog food tasters are employed to see whether the food would appeal to the dog’s owner. The taster ascertains the smell, taste and texture of the food. Side effects of a career in the dog food tasting may include an unnatural affinity with our furry friends and a tendency to chase cars. The pay appears to be nothing worth barking home about either.
The Italians took entertainment very seriously. The Castrati were male singers, castrated before they hit puberty so they could retain their singing voice. These Castrati were not the same as the more common eunuchs, however. As a physiological result of losing the little guys, the castrati’s limbs grew abnormally long, out of proportion with the rest of their body.
It also appears to have affected their lung capacity, giving them an unparalleled singing ability. Thankfully, the practice of human castration was banned in 1870. The Castrati acquired a lot of wealth and fame over their course of their career. There were drawbacks, however. They could never have a family and were often the butt of cruel japes, but there is no reason to suggest they had anything but a ball of a time.
An interesting, if somewhat revolting, way of making a living, leech-collecting involved wading into stagnant fresh water where the titular creepy crawlies were likely to be found. The critters were the pinnacle of medicinal technology for the greater part of a millennium and were considered extremely valuable.
This was a period of time where everything from a tooth ache to ‘madness of the head’ was thought to be caused by ‘bad blood’ and could hence be treated by bleeding the afflicted via leeches. Leech hunting was not a very profitable profession, and was fraught with several other drawbacks.
Since to successfully catch a leech you had to first be bitten by it, severe blood loss on a regular basis was a common issue. Leech collecting was also seasonal, as few, if any, were found during the winter months, leaving the collectors in a rather sticky situation.
Barbers didn’t always resemble that portly old man with a Italian accent who gives your hair a trim once a month. Think portly old man with every article of clothing of his covered in human blood and you’d be on the right track.
You see, barbers were the Swiss-army knives of the Middle Ages, apart from haircutting they also regularly performed surgery and dental procedures (an elaborate way to say they chopped or yanked off the afflicted body part). And since that time period wasn’t known for its fondness of hygiene, barbers lost as many clients to infection as they did to competition.
The mortality rates were so high that Henry the VIIIth finally decided to stop barbers from performing surgeries and maybe have actual surgeons do it. Also, fun fact- the ‘barber-pole’, the iconic red and white striped pole that spins outside a barbershop has nothing to do with haircutting at all! The red stands for surgery and the white for dentistry. Yikes.
An artificer was a technician and skilled craftsman that made ‘wonderful’ (read- insane, dangerous and bordering on witchcraft) things that actually work. These ‘things’ could be stage machinery for plays such as a hell mouth belching flames or a harness for an angel to descend from heaven. He could get lucky and find a rich lord with a love of pranks and other cartoonish villainy.
The artificer would then spend his time designing booby traps in the lord’s castle, starting with a trapdoor leading to the Rancor’s pit. Artificers were also skilled toy makers, and would make tiny functional windmills and doll carriages harnessed to mice for little princes, princesses and lordlings.
These sketchy chaps make an appearance in The Canterbury Tales. Basically a con man (but with even less of a conscience), a pardoner would go around town accusing people of sins of every hue, both real and imagined, telling them they would be damned for all eternity if they did not repent. And how should the supposed sinners repent? By buying a ‘completely authentic’ piece of the sail from St. Peter’s fishing boat, buy two and he’ll throw in a pardon signed by God himself!
Pardoners often targeted the poor and ignorant, and would often issue these pardons before the sin was committed. Cheating gullible peasants may seem easy, but it came with inherent risks. If caught by the clergy, the crook would get the harshest punishment possible, for not only was he cheating people of their money, he was possibly damning their souls for all eternity as well!
Several other of these curious professions have become lost to us, omitted from the annals of history. Others remain, practiced by some hapless individuals. So the next time your boss sends you on a coffee run, just be thankful you aren’t an odor judge.