The 21st century certainly has its share of disgusting jobs, but in the times before mechanization, indoor plumbing, and electricity, our ancestors really bore the brunt of the literal dirty work. Here are 10 jobs found in Tony Robinson’s The Worst Jobs in History that are NSWE (not safe while eating).
1. Vomit collector. It’s a myth that the ancient Romans had dedicated rooms for regurgitating food, but it was common practice to vomit in order to consume more at the feast. Many individuals would throw up in special receptacles or simply on the floor to avoid interrupting the bacchanal. Of course, this required the services of a vomit collector who would clean it all up.
2. Leech collector. In the Middle Ages, medicine could barely be described as primitive, and methods such as bleeding were common practice for a multitude of medical ailments. One method of bleeding a patient called for applying leeches, which had to be collected from nearby ponds and bogs. A leech collector would simply wade into the water with bare legs and swish around until the dreaded creatures attached. They were then pulled off and dropped in a bucket to be sold to the town’s doctor, barber-surgeon, or other “medical professional.”
3. Fuller. Wool is a naturally waterproof material, thanks to the oils distributed through it from a sheep’s skin. This grease also was what made the harvesting, carding, spinning, and weaving processes run smoothly in the Middle Ages. But the cloth that resulted was coarse, had a wide mesh, and was easily frayed. To solve these problems, the grease had to be removed from the cloth with an alkaline solution, and the cheapest and most abundant alkaline solution at that time was stale urine. A fuller’s job was to place freshly woven lengths of wool cloth into a tub, pour in stale urine, and then stomp it with his or her feet. As if that weren’t bad enough, the urine used for this process came from multiple people — as many gallons were needed. Fullers had to collect it from public toilets and private homes. Have you ever been so grateful for modern chemistry?
4. Groom of the Stool. In the tradition of divine right — which placed kings on the level of gods — for centuries it was thought improper for a king to wipe his own bottom. Henry VIII was no exception, and the Groom of the Stool was a prestigious position assigned to a top-level aristocrat. Though prestigious, the job was humiliating. The groom was responsible for fetching the king’s toilet chair when needed, wiping his behind, and collecting his stool for examination and monitoring of his health. He also had the privilege of administering an enema should the king find himself constipated.
5. Violin string maker. Prior to the 17th century’s revolution in the technology of string-making for musical instruments, the industry was decidedly more disgusting. In order to make strings thick enough to play lower notes on a violin (which at the time had only three strings), the preferred method involved twisting strands of sheep innards together. String makers would have to butcher the sheep very carefully so as not to rupture the stomach or lower intestines and then spend painstaking hours trimming away fatty tissue, blood vessels, and muscle. Then the guts had to be soaked in a solution of wood ash to further clean them and constantly monitored so that they didn’t begin to rot. The innards were then thoroughly dried and twisted into bass strings.
6. Rat catcher. With rapid industrialization in the 19th century, cities became burgeoning hubs of filth and disease. Happily contributing to that were millions of rats. When the problem got out of hand in a certain household, the rat catcher was called in to sort things out. He rubbed oils of aniseed and thyme into his hands and clothing to attract rats, which he would try to catch with his bare hands. Most of these rats weren’t killed; they were kept and sold as a tidy source of profit.
7. Match girl. “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match…” — wait a minute! This isn’t the Russian shtetl, rather the factories of London (and there’s no yente involved). Manufacturing matches themselves wasn’t the disgusting part; it consisted merely of dipping short sticks of wood into a phosphorous solution. The grossness happened after you’d been on the job for a few years. Inhaling the phosphorous caused an ailment known as “phossy jaw,” in which the gums began to abscess and give off a foul-smelling discharge. Eventually, the absorption of the phosphorous caused the women’s jaws to take on a eerie glow. The only known treatment was a harrowing operation to remove the jawbone.
8. Bone grubber. Victorian cities had a vast scavenging economy, and the bone grubber fell somewhere in the middle of it. These workers would scavenge rotting bones from butchers, garbage piles, and stockyards and sell them to dealers. Some of the bones would eventually be made into toothbrush handles, children’s teething rings, and other personal items. What couldn’t be sold were boiled down for soapmaking, and the remainder were ground into fertilizer.
9. Mudlark. At the bottom of the Victorian scavenging economy was the mudlark, a person who walked the river banks collecting bits of anything overlooked by other scavengers. These people toiled in extreme poverty, often barefoot, in the freezing water of a city’s rivers. There was no telling what they might find; bits of metal, bone, or cloth could be sold to other scavengers. Dead bodies, human excrement, and rotting fish were occupational hazards.
10. Tanner. Perhaps the most disgusting job of all time, in Robinson’s view, tanners performed the essential work of preserving hides from cattle, pigs, and other animals for use in manufactured goods. The process of preparing the hide was a tedious and foul-smelling one, involving soaking the hides in giant pits of lime to soften the hair and tissues. All of the hair and fat would then be scraped off by hand, a slippery and odorous process. The cleaned hide was then re-immersed in a pit of water and dog feces to further clean and soften it. Of course, these pits were kept fermenting between batches of hides, so the Victorian tannery was one of the most revolting, wretched-smelling places in history. (You can find thousands of tanners in the 1880 U.S. Census.)
—Melanie Linn Gutowski
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