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Word of Mouth

From Rat-Catchers to Knocker-Uppers: 10 Jobs That Have Become Obsolete

jacashgone via Flickr Creative Commons

By Alexis Chapin and Molly Donahue.

We explored the world of the obsolescence, from CDs and 8-tracks to Atari games and trains, and why these things often leave us nostalgic. Listen to the full show here.

But technology isn’t the only thing that becomes obsolete over time. Jobs also disappear over time as they are replaced, usually out of efficiency or lack of demand. We’ve compiled a list of some of the most interesting jobs that have gradually vanished over the years.  

Credit By Mayhew, H. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Hired by cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rat-catchers hunted the rodents to limit the spread of diseases and prevent damage to food supplies. The domesticated rat, known as the “fancy rat,” is thought to have emerged from this profession, as rat-catchers frequently bred rats themselves to stay in business.  Now, this profession has evolved into pest technicians, who use more complex mechanisms than the hand-to-rat technique of their predecessors.


Yes, knocker-uppers. Starting during the Industrial Revolution and used into the 1920’s, the knocker-up, or knocker-upper, was a human alarm clock. Customers would either put a note on their door or window indicating their wake up time, or notify the knocker-upper in advance. They would use sticks, clubs or pebbles to knock on clients’ windows. Mills and factories would frequently employ their own knocker-uppers to rouse their laborers.


A profession originating in Cuba, lectors were hired by union or factory workers to read aloud to (frequently illiterate) cigar rollers. During the Tampa Cigar Makers’ Strike of 1931, lectors were scapegoated for promoting the radical leftist views expressed by Cuban workers. This, combined with the spread of radio, made the lector profession obsolete within the U.S. However, the tradition continues in Cuba to this day.

Credit Pinboys nclc.04636 via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Bowling Alley Pinsetter:

Before Gottfried Schmidt invented the mechanical pinsetter in 1936, bowling pins were reset by pinsetters or pinspotters. Normally done by teenage boys, the work was manual, low-paid and fast paced.

Credit Bundesarchiv, Bild via Wikimedia Commons

The Iceman:

Those born in the earlier half of the 20th century may remember a friendly and frosty staple to their childhood routine: the iceman. He would deliver requested amounts of ice (usually harvested from northern bodies of water) to households on a regular basis. With the invention of the electric refrigerator and freezer in the late 1940’s, and their rapid introduction to American households in the 50’s, the iceman became an obsolete profession.

Switchboard Operators: 

This career was perhaps the most important for smooth functioning of the telephone industry until rapidly evolving telecommunications technology rendered it obsolete. They would connect long distance phone calls and look up unknown numbers, which is now done by customers themselves or by voice automation.

Credit michal_hadassah via Flickr Creative Commons


Once considered a respectable occupation, typists became obsolete starting in the 1980’s and 90’s. With the increased use of personal computers, typing fell from a specialized skill to a necessary proficiency.

Video store clerks:

The person who was once your local film aficionado no longer has a place in the booming world of Netflix, HBO Go and Hulu Plus. Video store clerks could pick up on the slightest allusion to a movie – “that one with the blonde girl and the parents” – and emerge, VHS in hand, from the aisles. Though we may miss their quirky personalities, the gas and time we are saving makes the Netflix suggestion algorithm seem like a pretty good replacement.  

Travel Agents: With the increasingly digital travel market, with sites such as Expedia, Kayak and Hotwire winning customers with advertising budgets and convenience, most traditional travel agents are struggling to stay afloat. Though not yet obsolete, this profession is certainly on its way out.

Credit brad montgomery via Flickr Creative Commons

Door to door sales people:  According to Forbes, door to door sales jobs contracted by 40% from 2005 to 2010. However, they were once a part of daily life for most Americans. The ultimate advertisement, door to door salesmen frequently gave out free gifts or used other similar gimmicks to ensure a sale the next time they came a’knockin. Shortly replaced by telemarketers (who are now being pushed out by no call lists) the closest equivalent in the 2000s is pop up advertisements.

To listen to more stories about things that go obsolete, and the nostalgia that often accompanies them, click here.

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