As the new school year begins, colleges and trade schools discuss the advantages of higher education for obtaining a job. In fact, studies do show that modern workers earn more with higher levels of education and increasingly specialized skills.
However, with the economy changing, some jobs that once defined entire communities are disappearing, forcing workers to adapt. This is not a new process. The auto mechanic steadily replaced the blacksmith, and the tire salesman replaced the wheelwright. The 8-Track, revered by music lovers in the 1970s, has not been manufactured in decades. Televisions and DVD players have seen their prices fall so low that they are practically disposable, and the cost of repairing a damaged unit often uneconomical.
Times change as technology advances, businesses shift, and tastes evolve. Jobs that were seen as respectable ways to earn a comfortable living were thrust into economic oblivion. In that spirit, these are a few professions that no longer exist:
Ice Cutter: Modern southerners are all thankful for ice, but it was unavailable most of the year for generations. In the 1800s, teams of men instead would cut huge blocks of ice in the Arctic or in the ice caps of tall mountains and carefully transport them southward.
By the mid-1800s, this ice was carried by railroad, carefully packed in straw. However, it still melted along the way. The unrelenting heat of southern summers made ice impossible to find in more remote communities.
With the development of refrigeration by the 1920s, ice cutters were steadily replaced by home delivery of ice by ice manufacturers. The ice cutter business ended by the 1930s, and even home delivery of ice essentially ended by the 1940s as more individuals could make ice at home. However, some businesses still specialize in selling high-capacity ice makers.
Telegraph Operator: After the development of the telegraph by Samuel Morse in 1844, this new device revolutionized communications in the United States by allowing messages to be sent almost instantly from one corner of the country to another. Colleges began offering this as a course of study in the 1850s.
Newspapers even advertised their wide assortment of telegraphic news they printed from around the world. Telephones and radio replaced the telegraph. The last telegraph company in the United States, Western Union, ended telegraph operations in 2006 and operates mostly as an electronic money transfer company.
County Hide Inspector: The county hide inspector was an elected position in Texas beginning in 1871. Its purpose was to inspect any hides or pelts being shipped outside the county for sale in order to prevent theft. Cattle theft declined as other means of theft prevention developed. Agriculture steadily declined in many areas over the decades, and the office began being phased out in the 1940s. By the 1990s, the position was completely eliminated.
Typewriter Repair: The typewriter was once the symbol of the modern, successful business. Hundreds of repair shops existed in cities across the nation to ensure that these indispensable tools kept working.
As desktop computers began overtaking typewriters in the 1970s with the wide array of functions available to them, the repair shop began to disappear. The last typewriter factory closed in 2011. The remaining typewriter repair businesses have either closed or moved into servicing other types of office equipment or reduced themselves to semi-retired hobbyists.
Ivory Merchant: By the eighteenth century, ivory products became the height of sophistication. The smooth, sleek white elephant tusks were widely sought after for everything from piano keys to false teeth to decorations on jewelry, canes, and other products. Ivory merchants often became wealthy as they bought and sold ivory and ivory products. Those who fashioned ivory were respected craftsmen who themselves made good livings. As more species of elephant were pushed into extinction by the twentieth century and the numbers of surviving elephants dwindled, bans on ivory sales and trade grew. Ivory craftsmen and ivory merchants themselves are now extinct.
Lamplighter: The community lamplighter lit the gas lamps that illuminated the avenues of cities in the United States and elsewhere in the late 1800s. City officials considered the introduction of natural gas lighting along previously dark streets to be a major advance to protect public safety and reduce crime. However, the lamps had to be lit in the evenings and extinguished in the mornings, requiring several lamplighters to tend to each one in the city. With the introduction of electric street lighting, these jobs were eliminated by the early 1900s.
Elevator Operator: When elevators were invented in the 1850s, they were not automatic. They required an operator to bring riders to the correct floor and safely operate the doors. Because of advances in design and safety, this occupation became virtually extinct by the 1970s.
Riding Mechanic/Mechanician: In the early days of auto racing in the early 1900s, racing was often not a one-man feat. Usually, a riding mechanic (also called a mechanician) sat with the driver, sometimes having to repair the car while it was in motion. Because automatic fuel injection systems did not yet exist, the riding mechanic often had to manually pump fuel directly into the engine to get the car to race at higher speeds. By the mid-1930s, advances in automobile design made the position obsolete.
The fact that technology within a few years will radically change how most jobs are performed or eliminate entire professions does not make a trade school or a college education a waste of time. Education by its very nature is messy and inefficient, but it offers and reinforces those skills that are timeless and essential for any worker in any time period, skills such as critical thinking, research, integrity, and adaptability. After all, the tractor did not replace the farmer, the VCR did not close the movie theater, and the Internet did not replace the teacher.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a
historian, writer and native Texan. He is the author of several books, and his
columns appear in dozens
of newspapers. Bridges
can be contacted at