5 Ordinary Jobs That Used To Be Crazy Dangerous
Back in the day, just about everything was more dangerous than it is now. Even having a glass of water could be a life-and-death gamble. The goal is always to set society up to be a cushy bouncy house where nothing too sharp can touch us. But we still need many of the same services we used to, which means that jobs considered dull today used to require staggering feats of bravery. For example ...
Train Operators Used To Cut Cars Loose While Trains Were Moving
Modern train operation is so straightforward that conductors can scroll Twitter and actually read some of the tweets before they share them, but in 19th-century Britain, they had to be on their guard. At any point, they might have to detach cars from the train at high speed and guide them into a station.
After all, why slow down the entire train for every little stop when you could simply cut part of it loose? Probably the only reason they weren't throwing passengers out the windows was that this way was just as cheap. The train cars didn't require much modification, only a detachable coupling using a comically named "slip cock." Each "slip coach," as the detachable cars were called, had its own guard, who eased it to the station using a handbrake.
At first, slip coaches were locked away from the rest of the cars for safety, but the populace demanded restaurant access for their multiple nightly cocktails, so they built new coaches with corridors. That meant the guard had to ensure everyone was present during the decoupling, in addition to the already-stressful job of steering a literal runaway train. Had to use the loo? Too bad, you're going to Brighton now.
Amazingly, in over 100 years of service, slip coaching resulted in only two serious accidents and zero fatalities. But slipping required extra workers, slipped cars could not be quickly reattached, and trains became dangerously faster. So on September 9, 1960, the last-ever slip car pulled into Bicester Station. It was probably muttering about nanny state party-poopers, like a libertarian Thomas the Tank Engine.
Child Pinsetters Used To Have To Dodge Bowling Balls
Bowling alleys are one of the few places where you can get drunk with the kids, so they tend to be set up in such a way that both underdeveloped humans and full-size inebriated ones can operate the lanes. Machines do most of the work. They keep tabs on whose turn it is, add up everyone's scores, and even clear the pins and set them back up after each toss. However, when bowling alleys started becoming popular in 1895, such a machine would have blown the fancy hat right off a Victorian's head. That meant they needed someone to attend to the pins, and like most thankless jobs of the era, it was mainly done by children.
"Pin boys" were usually assigned two lanes, whose pins they would monitor for the faintest sign of wobble so they could spring into action to remove or replace them. They also had to ferry the spent bowling balls back to their owners -- no newfangled chutes for the bustle set. As you might have guessed from the employment pool, the job featured woeful compensation for something with such a high risk of shattered bones.
Not only were pins much heavier back then (about 35 pounds), but they also had to avoid being hit by a constant barrage of bowling balls hurled by careless, whiskey-soaked railroad barons who either didn't notice them or didn't care. Even if a pin boy successfully dodged every projectile over his whole career, he'd still have to carry about 9,200 pounds of pins and balls every single night. If Charles Dickens had considerably lowered his brow, we'd all have read Oliver Strike in English class.
Doing Laundry Required Standing In Tubs Of Human Urine All Day
Modern laundry is a breeze. You put it in a machine, something (possibly magical) happens, then you put it away. But back in Roman times, doing the laundry was more like traditional wine-making, except weirder, grosser, and rarely romanticized in the kinds of films that don't feature men in diapers.
Ammonia was a key component in Roman laundries. Unfortunately, it would be centuries before you could just pick up a jug of ammonia at Walmart, so they had to make do with what they had: the ammonia in urine. If that wasn't bad enough, ammonia is only produced when urine has gone stale, so first they had to let it sit around for a while, getting nice and stinky. To that end, ancient Romans constructed what were basically ancient Porta Potties: specially made vessels just to collect peasant piss.
Once they'd emptied all their primitive Honey Buckets, they dumped the contents in a huge vat, usually made of wood or stone, along with soap, warm water, and the woven cloth. That's when the fun really started for the unfortunate folks on shift, who had to hop in and stomp the piss-cloth for three to five days. If it's any consolation, it was probably the cleanest thing that touched an ancient Roman's foot all day.
Librarians Couldn't Be Afraid Of Heights
Working in a library is at best a low-key experience -- the monotony of guiding hopeful young readers is only occasionally spiced up by the necessity of ejecting a masturbating hobo from the restroom. But that's because modern libraries are built with fancy-schmancy safety regulations and fire codes. Librarians in the Gilded Age risked plummeting to their deaths at any moment:
This beautiful death trap was the Old Cincinnati Library, est. 1874. Architect J.W. McLaughlin designed it with five levels of cast-iron shelving, checkered marble floors, a skylight ceiling, and no regard for bodily harm. It was initially built as an opera house, but funding ran out, so they did what any self-respecting broke intellectual does with free space and flooded it with books.
Choking on dust and landing skull-first on a decadent marble floor weren't the only risks librarians took, either. A significant number came down with vague but nevertheless incapacitating physical and mental health complaints, possibly caused by facing death every time they had to shelve the returns. In 1900, the Brooklyn Public Library Association even considered building a "seaside rest home" specifically for librarians disabled in the line of duty, and it's kind of disappointing that it never ended up happening. It sounds rad as hell.
Flower Pickers Regularly Cheated Death
Back in the 19th century, the English loved themselves some flowers, but few knew about the perilous, torturous expeditions that botanists undertook to get them. Among the most famous plant-hunters was Ernest Henry "Chinese" Wilson, who procured thousands of new species from Asia, and nearly died doing so multiple times. One time, while hunting down the regal lily in China, he survived an avalanche that left him with a permanent "lily limp," as he called it.
Wilson's contemporary, George Forrest, who was responsible for identifying some 1,200 species, almost died horribly during his very first expedition. In 1904, he and his mates ran into Tibetan monks rebelling against the Chinese. The monks killed his guides, as well as his European companion, removing his eyes and tongue. Not all monks are chill, you know?
Frank Kingdon-Ward, leader of more than 20 plant-hunting expeditions, also cheated death frequently. He was nearly crushed when a tree fell on his tent, and on another occasion he tumbled off a cliff but managed to grab onto a branch Wile-E.-Coyote-style. He also got lost in a jungle, only surviving by sucking the nectar from flowers.
And those are just the famous botanists (i.e. the ones who lived). Countless others suffered gruesome deaths at the hands of kidnappers, disease, wild animals, you name it. Those disgruntled English wives better have appreciated their hastily gifted bouquets.
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