On Labor Day, let’s pay homage to those jobs that have disappeared. No, not those jobs that have been offshored or downsized, not those jobs that were the victims of economic downturn, but those jobs that were the victims of progress.
In the 1930s, the Department of Labor sent researchers into workplaces across the United States in an attempt to catalogue every single type of job being done at that time. The result was “The Dictionary of Occupational Titles,” published in 1939. The 1,288-page book is an exhaustive, alphabetical listing of 29,000 different jobs, from “A” Machine Helper (a job in the hat-making industry) to Zoologist.
I sat entranced as I thumbed through the book last week at the Wirtz Labor Library in the Labor Department’s building on Constitution Avenue NW. Many of the jobs it lists are still around — doesn’t it seem that you can’t throw a dead pygmy marmoset these days without hitting a zoologist? — but many aren’t.
These were the job titles I loved stumbling across, those that automation or our “modern” ways have made obsolete. There is a poetry in them that you just don’t find in “C++ Programmer.”
Pin Boy, Newsboy, Yoke Girl, Hat-Check Girl, Sirup Man, Yeast Man, Muffle Man . . .
Together on the same page were both Take-Off Girl and Take-Off Man. (No, not strippers. The former worked in the confectionery industry, the latter in brick and tile.)
Some job titles sound vaguely naughty: Loin Inspector, Bottom Waxer, Rubber Buffer, Woodpecker, Meringue Spreader. (They are from, respectively, the meatpacking, shoemaking, tire making, logging and baking industries.)
There are two pages of button-related jobs, from Button Assorter to Buttonstand Operator. Flip to the Js and you’ll find multiple titles beginning with “jawbone”: Jawbone Breaker, Jawbone Chiseler, Jawbone Grinder, Jawbone Puller, Jawbone Scraper.
The job descriptions accompanying each title are exemplars of simple, to-the-point writing, though some may strike modern readers as a tad graphic:
Eyelid Remover: “Partially dresses hog heads by removal of eyelids; sticks sharp point of small meat hook into eyelids of conveyor-suspended hog, pulling the lid away from the eye; makes semicircular knife cut around eyelid and pulls it out; repeats above operation for other eye. May shave hair from eyelid.”
Some of the jobs have a certain raffish charm. A Circus Detective was a person who “circulates among circus crowds, watching for pickpockets and other undesirables, and to detect any dishonesty among circus workers; apprehends those involved.”
An Irish-Moss Gatherer “gathers Irish moss (for use in puddings and jellies, to clarify beer, or to size fabrics) by hand or by using a long-handled rake to tear the moss from the rocks and haul it into the boat.”
The listing for Screen Ape caught my eye. It instructed me to “See Grizzly Worker.” I paged forward, where I learned that a Grizzly Worker toils “underground at a grizzly (a grating constructed of heavy iron beams or timbers) over a chute leading to a storage bin or haulage level, dumping ore from cars through grizzly, and breaking oversize lumps with a sledge hammer so that they will pass through grizzly.”
I liked the sound of Tipple Boss and Tufstayer, Night Hawk and Youngster, Rivet Flunky and Doup Fixer.
In case you’re curious:
Tipple Boss: “Is in charge of operations at a tipple where the coal output of a mine is dumped, screened, cleaned, and loaded into railroad cars or trucks for market.”
Tufstayer: From the shoemaking industry, it’s someone who “Sticks a piece of tough paper, known as tufstay, on the inside vamp or on any part of the upper where any strain is to be exerted in processing or in wear, to serve as a reinforcement and prevent the leather from stretching.
Night Hawk: “A term applied to a Cowpuncher; Sheep Herder; or other ranch worker when working at night on the range.”
Youngster: “A general term applied to worker who is on his first sealing trip.”
Rivet Flunky: “Supplies Rivet Heater with rivets, small tools, coke or coal, and water; performs errands for riveting gang.”
Doup Fixer: “Replaces broken or defective doups by pulling out imperfect ones and inserting new ones with pliers while the harness is on the loom.”
And what, you may ask, is a doup? It’s a needle used in weaving.
Our land is a tapestry of people doing different jobs. I hope you enjoy yours, whatever it is.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.