Labor Day is coming up and since I know nothing about the dignity of labor or about how to make potato salad for the inexorable cook-out, I’ll just follow up my former Labor Day post on The Club of Queer Trades.
Nineteenth-century newspapers seemed fascinated by odd jobs. And, to be honest, there seems to have been a great deal of ingenuity displayed by the entrepreneurs in the stories. One enterprising chap scavenged dead cats from street sweepers and sold the skins to European fashion houses. Another bred spiders to sell to wine dealers who wanted cobwebbed bottles. A New York man chose hobbies and assembled collections for “brain-fagged” businessmen. Let us stroll down to the employment agency and scan some of the unusual jobs posted on fly-specked cards tacked up in the window.
Many people enjoyed working with animals.
A man who spends his life in looking after millions of sick silkworms is to be found in the Nilgiri Hills of India. He carries on this queer occupation in a small building on which the words “Sanitarium for Silkworms” are painted. To him ailing larvae are sent from the raw silk centres. Evening Post, 9 April 1932: p. 20
The only lions’ barber in the world lives in New York; an Italian, Antonio Castellioni. He tours all the zoos and circuses of the United States to cut the hair of lions, which have to be roped up before he commences operations. He gets 25 dollars for each haircut for, in spite of the ropes, it is rather a dangerous job. It is never certain whether the lions will not prove to be strong enough to break the bonds. New Zealand Herald, 28 November 1936: p. 2
You mightn’t think that a man could eke out existence selling catnip. One does, though. He stands at an uptown corner with a basketful of cat’s delight, selling it for two cents a bunch, and the old maids in the vicinity make daily pilgrimages to his corner. When you’re inclined to growl about your present salary, think of the man selling catnip for two cents a bunch. [words to live by…] The Sun [New York, NY] 22 November, 1903: p. 2
Four prosperous citizens earn their livelihood as doctors for the lap-dogs of rich women. As a rule, the only medicine they use is starvation. They fling the dear pets into barred boxes and deprive them of food for four days, having found out that the usual trouble with pet dogs is that they are fed extravagantly and highly…That scheme is not so profitable as that of a man I met the other day, who told me he trained valuable dogs to come straight back to him as often as he sold them. Macon [GA] Weekly Telegraph 1 February 1887: p. 6
Being a dog undertaker might be classified as a curious occupation in New York. It is declared that there isn’t a dog undertaker anywhere else in the world, but the one here mentioned makes a fine living out of it. He takes charge of the departed dog, slicks him up, chucks him into a proper coffin and buries him with pomp, the quality and volume of said pomp being largely determined by what you have to spend upon the interment of your four legged pal. The Sun [New York, NY] 22 November, 1903: p. 2
Stray dogs were always a problem in the 19th and early 20th-century town. This young man, who was judged unemployable because of illness was delighted to take over the job of burying them, but got entirely too wrapped up in his work.
“One day he learned with joy that some promise of employment had been found. The town was to pay him fifty cents apiece for burying dead dogs.
He did all the work he could get as dog undertaker, but even this was finally denied, for in order to stimulate business he began to kill dogs.”
[He was sent to an insane asylum.]
How the Uncared-for Epileptic Fares in Illinois , Illinois Committee of Fifty, 1913
Paris had a curious profession to keep dog-owners honest.
Paris has a man who barks for a living in Paris there is a tax of eight shillings a year on dogs, and the owners are supposed to declare them themselves. But many get out of this by tipping the concierge, or hall porter. So the authorities have found a man who can bark just like a dog, and are giving him £6 a month to go round at night and bark outside each house, and when a dog replies, to send the name and address to the authorities. The two-legged dog also gets a small commission on each discovery and does very well. Washington [DC] Post 17 September 1911: p. 3
Then we find this job, which comes in for some harsh words from the journalist.
Now comes an occupation that deserves nothing but hard words and the righteous denunciation of all honest folk. Boys have their own dovecotes with homing pigeons in occupancy. The homing pigeons, which haven’t a shred of probity about them, fly gaily into the streets and consort with strange pigeons, passing the time of day and insidiously working into the good graces of the unsuspecting strange pigeons.
It is notorious that pigeons love company. Put a pigeon by itself and in time it dies of loneliness. So when the trained and reprehensible homing pigeons suggest a little visit up at the cote, with a sly reference to a bit of choice fodder, out they start, the homing pigeon followed by one or several unsuspecting fellows.
They hike into the bad boys’ cote, which is equipped with trapdoors. The next day the poor little pigeons are hanging in the butcher’s window, tastefully dressed, and the wicked boys are jingling new coins and the despicable homing pigeons are sneaking about the streets for other victims. The Sun [New York, NY] 22 November, 1903: p. 2
Personal and grooming services were also popular occupational fields:
Here’s another funny occupation. A man goes around through the sweatshop district mending shoes. If you are a sweatshop employee you generally have one pair of shoes, and of necessity they are on your feet. You can’t leave them with the cobbler when the roof springs a leak or the uppers secede from the lowers. You haven’t time to flit around the shop in your stockings. So this itinerant cobbler hunts you up at your shop, takes off your shoes while you sew and caulks up the seams, tacks on soles and heels and you pay him with a cheerful smile and some small change. The Sun [New York, NY] 22 November, 1903: p. 2
Wearing out the stiffness of our new boots is another peculiar calling; yet a London bootmaker has a man who, for a consideration, is prepared to do this for wealthy customers. He is kept busily employed, too, averaging twelve hours tramping daily in and about Hyde Park.
Even this occupation, however, is surpassed in novelty—at all events, in its mode of carrying out—by that of the man whose profession is teaching gentlemen how to shave.
Some years ago this man lost a fairly good situation by reason of a disfiguring barber’s itch, [ringworm] caught at the hands of an uncleanly barber.
He got rid of the complaint at last and took to shaving himself; and now Barber stands at barbers’ doors—the man’s name, curiously enough, is Barber—delivering hand-bills, headed: “Why catch the itch? Learn to shave yourself,” and offering a course of lessons in the art at a nominal fee. He gets $15 a week. Charlotte [NC] Observer 27 January 1905: p. 9
Some trades were slightly less savory than others.
A French writer furnishes some startling statistics of the great hair industry. He declares the fact to be unimpeachable that the bulk of the hair worn as wigs is supplied by the rag-pickers, who carry on a great trade in the combings which are picked up every morning in the dustbins of the great towns. It is estimated that in Paris alone ladies daily comb out and throw away fifty kilos, of hair, which is carefully gathered by the chiffoniers. The hair is then rolled in sawdust, and cleaned from all mud, dust, grease, and other impurities. Next it is carded, separated, arranged according to length and colour, and sold to the master chiffonier, who, in turn, sells it to the hair dealer. Bruce Herald, 1 March 1892: p. 3
Until recently a wooden-limbed man named O’Hara did a brisk business in second-hand legs. Whenever a wooden-legged man or other cripple died at the hospital close by where he lived, O’Hara promptly bought up the props and crutches, if the relatives were willing to sell. These he disposed of to other poor patients who were unable to afford the surgical instrument maker’s prices. Charlotte [NC] Observer 27 January 1905: p. 9
I think this one is my favorite odd jobs:
The painting of black eyes is a flourishing business. Only a year ago there was but one professional who made the treatment of discoloured optics a special business. Now that profession is no longer confined to down-town and there are four establishments above Twenty-third street, each employing as many assistants as a popular barber’s shop. The usual treatment is to extract the extravasated blood by leeches and then to paint the skin. When this is carefully done the “sign of the blackguard,” as Thackeray called it is well-nigh obliterated. Switchmen’s Journal, 1893: p. 527
And here’s a helpful tip for those thinking of setting up their own black-eye-painting franchise: the black-eye formula was six parts white paint to one part red.
Bustling cities offered much scope for keen young men with Novel Schemes.
Another appellant, who described himself as a “professional baptiser,” averred that he earned £5 a week inventing names for “novelties” in big drapers’ shops. Star, 12 March 1917: p. 7
One has to admire the ingenuity of the young fellow who suggested this line of work, which seems to require a minimum of effort. I have my doubts about the duration of employment.
Professional Window Gazers
A Queer Profession Followed by the Young Men in the Quaker City.
Two young men who spend the day and a large part of the evening on Chestnut street are paid to do so. They are both well known figures, and generally they travel together. They are professional window gazers. The young men, in common with everybody else, know that to attract a crowd to a window all one has to do is to stand and gaze into that window.
In a short time ten or a dozen people will be gazing with him. They were down to hard pan—on their uppers, so to speak. One of them went to the proprietor of a men’s furnishing house on Chestnut street and told him that for so much a week he would guarantee to attract more attention to his window than all the displays that could be laid out. The proprietor was struck with the idea and gave it a trial.
As a consequence there was a crowd at his window nearly all the time. The young man would walk up to the window with his friend and stand gazing there until a crowd of a dozen or fifteen were standing with them. To keep the crowd moving he would walk away, and that started the break in the crowd. The performance was repeated every ten or fifteen minutes. The young man went to other stores along the street, unfolded his plan, and pointed out the success of it. In a short time he had the whole street from Ninth to Broad on his beat, and he had to take his friend into partnership, and he makes plenty of money. If other window gazers do not get into the business, these two originators will shortly establish branches of the “Gazers” in other cities. Philadelphia News Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 18 October 1887: p. 4
Informal financiers were also to be found in the cities.
Within the past two years a number of men have started into the business of visiting, without invitation, the rooms of young men in boarding houses, furnished rooms and flats, asking them if they have anything to sell, and concluding a cash transaction on the spot. This system saves the modesty of the dude and insures the privacy of the transactions. Switchmen’s Journal, 1893: p. 527
Another curious occupation is that of the office shylock. He is usually a foreigner who makes $10 a week and he carries a roll of bills large enough to burn a wet dog. When he lends $10 on Monday morning you pay him back $12 Saturday night. You always pay it. You have a distrust of foreigners and they may dislike you if you don’t pay your obligations. The office shylock generally masquerades as a shoe shiner. The Sun [New York, NY] 22 November, 1903: p. 2
Busy mammas were grateful for this man’s service:
Next comes what is really a woman’s calling, but strangely enough it is followed by a large man with an extremely red face and a stubby moustache. Children must like him because his business is checking them while bargain seeking mammas thread their ways through the aisles of stores.
He stands at the head of a line of baby carriages, soothing his round faced charges and waving a tinkling strapful of ragged edged checks. Upon delivery to him of the check which he gave you when you entered the store you may receive again your baby. No check, no baby, just as in the [Chinese laundry.] The Sun [New York, NY] 22 November, 1903: p. 2
The entertainment industry offered much scope for novel occupations:
The “Manchester Guardian” states that Captain Charles West, of Melbourne, an actor, has been appointed president of the London Club of Queer Trades, formed in the interests of kinema “stunt” artists to secure adequate rates of pay, ranging from two guineas for a simple accident to £50 for a motor-smash. Falls from aeroplanes will be extra. Press, 24 December 1920: p. 14
Gloria Dunsten, a widow of New York, made it known by advertising that she would permit any man to send her love letters which at a fee of 15 dollars she would answer in passionate terms. New Zealand Herald, 28 November 1936: p. 2 [I have to wonder how often she got in trouble for violating the laws against sending pornographic literature through the mails.]
Two caddies of Denver, Colorado, are paid to look for a golf ball which was lost by the millionaire Thomas Delroy, during a game. This ball bears an autograph of Greta Garbo. The caddies have been working at their job for seven months. New Zealand Herald, 28 November 1936: p. 2
I am not sure whether “cakes” would be sufficient inducement to take up this potentially lethal profession.
George Therma makes his living by being hanged 16 times a week for “$50 a month and his cakes,” as the contract reads.
Therma is a Mexican, and as star performer in the horse-thief act in the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show at Brighton Beach is lariated while riding a horse at breakneck speed, and is dragged at the end of the lasso a distance of several hundred feet to a tree, where he is strung up in true Judge Lynch style.
He has a piece of stiff coat lining fixed around his neck, and the rope does him little damage, though the Mexican Rurales, who come along to take his body, save him from a most uncomfortable position. On several occasions since he has been doing the work the cowboys who hang him have grown careless, and Therma has been cut down more nearly like the dead man he is supposed to be than the live man he wants to be.
Big Jose Barraro, the Mexican, who leads the cowboys in the capture of Therma, is no gentle child, and when he has a sportive spirit work in in him he finds it great fun after he has lassoed Therma to drag him through all the rough and ugly places on the ground. One day Barraro dragged him over a big stone, and Therma spent three weeks in a hospital having a broken skull mended.
Therma has had his arms broken and a leg dislocated, but he likes the excitement of the job and while he is occasionally taken from the field to the hospital tent unconscious he would not leave the work for anything you could offer him.
He thinks Barraro has a bet with a friend in the show that he will kill Therma yet, and he is betting that Barraro won’t. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 14 July 1904: p. 12
End of life services—or “black-job businesses”–were often a lucrative field for employment. I wrote of various mortuary personnel such as the dead face painter and the tombstone censor in The Victorian Book of the Dead. You can read about the occupational hazards of being a graveyard guard here.
Although one can still find vestiges of the Dickensian funeral mute in today’s black-clad funeral home personnel, the profession was a dying one in England by the 1890s. This off-and-on-again mute gives us the low-down on some of the unpleasantries of the job.
“Well, no sir — off and on; but I’ve always come back to it. I was a actor for three years; did Grecian stators, — Ajax defyin’ the lightnin’; Slave a-listenin’ to conspirators; Boy a-sharpenin’ his knife, and that game, you know, in a cirkiss. But I didn’t like it; they’re a low lot, them actors, with no feelin’ for art. And then I was a gentleman’s servant; but that wouldn’t do; they do dam’ and cuss their servants so, the gentlemen do, as I couldn’t stand it; and I was a mute.”
“A mute! — what, a funeral mute?”
“Yes, sir; black-job business; and wery good that is, — plenty of pleasant comp’ny and agreeable talk, and nice rides in the summer time on the ‘earses to all the pleasant simmetries in the suburbs!
But in the winter it’s frightful! and my last job I was nearly killed. We had a job at ‘Ampstead, in the depth of snow, and it was frightful cold on the top of the ‘Eath. It was the party’s good lady as was going to be interred, and the party himself were frightful near; in fact, a reg’lar screw. Well, me and my mate had been standin’ outside the ‘ousedoor with the banners in our ‘ands for an hour, until we was so froze we could scarcely hold the banners. So I says, I won’t stand no longer, I says; and I gev a soft rap, and told the servant we must have a drop of somethin’ short, or we should be killed with cold. The servant goes and tells her master, and what do you think he says? ‘Drink!’ he says. ‘Nonsense!’ he says; ‘if they’re cold, let ’em jump about and warm ’emselves,’ he says. Fancy a couple of mutes with their banners in their ‘ands a-jumpin’ about outside the door just before the party was brought out! So that disgusted me, and I gev it up, and come back to the old game agen.” Land at Last: A Novel, Edmund Hodgson Yates, 1866
I wish you all a relaxing Labor Day weekend. I’ll be back on Tuesday with more Fortean fun.
Mrs Daffodil provides the feminine counterpart to the above, with “The Conversation Crammer and Other Odd Occupations for Ladies.”
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead