With gritted teeth and steeled nerves, several times a day I skim online headlines for the latest reports of Republicans and Democrats lambasting each other, as well as encouraging and discouraging news about vaccines and virus variants. Is it any wonder that I allow myself to be distracted by articles having absolutely nothing to do with the next election or the most current sound bite from some attention-seeking politician?
I am a sucker for those basically useless but still fascinating lists enumerating the best pie in each state or 27 unique wedding gifts on a budget. And I am a double sucker for any article about people and their jobs.
Happily sidetracked the other day, I perused a list of “Famous Inventions Named After Their Creator.” It was mildly interesting to learn that Belgian musician Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone and that the diesel engine carries the name of its creator, German engineer Rudolf Diesel. Such information gives me a few more answers to shout at the TV during Jeopardy! – no matter which celebrity is guest hosting.
I do, however, appreciate a good backstory as in the case of Louis Braille, the blind Frenchman whose tactile system of reading and writing for the visually-impaired carries his name. This educator/inventor actually began at age 15 to improve upon an unsuccessful military touch system of issuing written orders to soldiers fighting under cover of darkness.
I also enjoyed the story of the seven Jacuzzi brothers whose family business focused on making wooden airplane propellers during the Wright Brothers era. It was not until 1956, when the son of one of these Italian brothers needed hydrotherapy for his rheumatoid arthritis, that family members submerged a pump of their design into a bathtub. Their invention, of course, now refers to those luxurious tubs able to accommodate groups of people.
I ran across another list: “38 Jobs That No Longer Exist,” subtitled “Old-Fashioned Professions.” Although most of the items so labeled made me feel even older and more outdated myself, I soldiered on. The first occupation listed was milkman. The only milkman I ever really knew was my dad, who morning and night carried a pan of fresh milk from the barn to the house. But the bread man in his panel truck periodically delivered six loaves of regular bread and one of diet right to our house on River Road. And I remember my Grandfather Maurice selling and delivering the eggs his laying hens produced.
I could also identify with the occupation of switchboard operator: my mother was one. I loved to hear her demonstrate “Number, please” from her switchboard days – she sounded just like the ladies in the old movies who stuck those plugs on cords into little holes. Mother always distinctively gave long-distance operators her former roommate’s Springfield number when they wanted to chat: a crisp and faintly nasal Fairfax 32746. In the early years of our German exchange, I frequently dealt with operators here and there, but these days I myself simply punch in fifteen numbers to reach Ingrid – only five more than I dial to talk with my neighbors!
Those old movies from several eras also often contained scenes of large rooms filled with the next occupation on the list: typists. The girls in Graham business teacher Nellie Pickering’s classroom acquired the finest points of this job to work in clackety offices, large and small. Nowadays people sit in cubicles staring at computer screens, unless they are pandemically-occupied at home staring at computer screens!
By the way, anyone who saw the multiply-nominated film Hidden Figures will certainly remember the many ladies who spent long hours crunching numbers for the higher-ups, their occupation referred to on the list as computers. What a job! What great minds! What great women!
Another long-gone occupation on the list is that of linotype operator, of which there were several at the UDC when I was a kid. My 4-H club toured the UDC offices in the 60s to watch the typesetters there; I also observed the subsequent pasteup operation and now participate in the digitalized production of the newspaper. Also gone are setters of another type: the pinsetters at local bowling establishments carrying out their reorganizational duties between frames.
I did spot on the list of old-fashioned professions a few jobs everyone today would consider truly obsolete, although some of my greats and grands might assume I was friends with the town crier or the lamplighter. Interestingly enough, chimney sweeps are not so easily categorized. A door-to-door chimney sweep stopped at Ingrid’s house one day, and there is occasional work for such individuals here in the States.
I was also fascinated to read that clockwinders were part of an entire profession based on the maintenance of timepieces. And before alarm clocks, knockeruppers shot peas at windows or tapped with long poles on the glass or doors of the people who hired them for wakeup services.
Finally, before the colonial period was in full swing, before indoor bathrooms were a “thing,” individuals known as necessary women were hired to empty chamber pots filled with human waste throughout the day. Oh, my!
But there will always be another list to entertain or inform me: “Olympic Moments That Changed History” or “Hospital Food Around the World.” I probably should, however, be super wary of this one, “12 Reasons You Should Never Trust Your Own Memory”!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.