11 of History’s Weirdest Jobs
There have been lots of interesting jobs throughout history, but some are certainly weirder than others. With changing technologies and shifting social norms, strange jobs have taken the forefront of many evolving cultures. After all, before the days of plumbing, modern medicine, television, streaming, and other normal parts of our day-to-day lives, basic care and entertainment looked much, much different.
But how different did it look, and what other jobs were deemed necessary in the far distant past? What strange jobs did poor unfortunate souls have to take on just to keep their version of civilization functioning? Here are eleven weird jobs from history - and some still exist!
Ornatrices can be thought of as early hairdressers. Instead of working for wages like modern hairdressers, however, ornatrices were enslaved to their owners. These women were tasked with making their owners look presentable in Roman society, especially amongst nobility. Though today this task would still take significant skill, it took even greater skill back then.
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In ancient times, hair dye, bleach, and wigs were not commercialized the way they are today. Ornatrices were tasked with crafting unique concoctions that would style their owner’s hair according to their needs and demands. This sometimes included mixing rotten leeches, crushed insects, squid ink, and bile to create darker dyes, or spreading pigeon poop and ashes over their owner’s head to make their hair color lighter. If their owner was missing any hair, they would have to shave their own hair to make a piece for their owner.
The Groom of the Stool was basically an English person designated to attend to the private toilets of English monarchs, but sometimes this job led to prestige, power, and better salaries. A closeup of King William III's stool toilet at Hampton Court Palace. (Peter K Burian / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Groom of the Stool
Though not necessarily the grossest of the jobs on this list, it certainly ranks high. The Groom of the Stool was the male servant assigned to assisting the English monarch with his toileting needs. This wasn’t as simple as just cleaning up, either. The Groom of the Stool would constantly carry a portable commode with towels, a washing bowl, and water.
Often, these grooms were so committed to their role that they would also monitor the monarch’s bowel movements. This meant tracking his mealtimes and generally learning when the monarch would need to use the commode. They would also help the monarch undress to use the commode, though they stopped short of wiping for him.
The role of a whipping boy was an unfortunate job of ancient times. When young princes would misbehave, it was against the rules to punish them with spankings since they were of royal blood. Instead of spanking or punishing the prince, a “whipping boy” was assigned to the prince and would take the spanking for him.
Though this sounds cruel, many resources say this tactic actually worked. The whipping boy would often be raised with the prince, so they shared a special bond. Upon the whipping boy taking punishment for the prince’s actions, the prince would feel bad and would be less inclined to misbehave again. Once crowned king, these princes would often reward their whipping boy with riches and palaces to make up for it.
Barber surgeons were really just early doctors that took care of hair and also performed weird procedures, like bloodletting. However, these “surgeons” were necessary to deal with all the “odd emergencies” of medieval life. This barber surgeon is operating on a man’s head. (Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)
While perfectly respectable jobs on their own, you would never think to combine the job requirements of barbers and surgeons together. And yet, that’s exactly what happened in the Middle Ages! Barber surgeons did the basics of barbers including cutting hair, shaving, and hair washing, but also performed the basics of surgeons. That’s right, someone could come in looking for a haircut, as well as a pulled tooth!
The idea behind this combination was that barbers were already skilled in using sharp objects like knives and razors carefully. If they could do this for hair, they would probably be successful in doing this for medical procedures. Some common medical procedures barber-surgeons performed include amputations, urine testing, tooth pulling, bloodletting, and other minor surgeries. To this day, barber poles are still portrayed in red and white because of barber-surgeons: red to represent blood, and white to represent bandages.
Certainly one of the vilest on this list, vomit collectors did exactly the job implied by their title. In Roman times, royals loved to eat to the point that they would allow themselves to vomit just so they could eat more. This became such a normal practice that the Romans wouldn’t even leave the room to vomit. Instead, there were appointed vomit collectors that would carry bowls specifically for catching vomit.
In some situations, there would be so many people at the dining table that there weren’t enough bowls, so they would simply vomit on the floor. The job of the vomit collector was to clean any vomit on the floor as well as the vomit in the bowls. If they were lucky, they would avoid getting vomited on directly.
Knocknobblers were the original animal control! In Elizabethan times, knocknobblers had the unique task of chasing wild dogs out of the church. If a wild dog entered the church during services, the knocknobblers would immediately shoo them out to keep them from distracting the worshippers.
Knocknobblers didn’t stop there, though. If wild dogs weren’t around, they would instead turn their attention to unruly and disobedient children. If scolding didn’t work, the knocknobbler would remove the children from the service too!
Leech collectors, like these medieval women catching them, were super important in the centuries where people believed leeches could literally suck the illness right out of you. This colored aquatint is from The Costume of Yorkshire by George Walker, published in 1814. (Robert Havell after George Walker / Public domain)
These workers clearly had the strangest collection of them all. Leech collectors would do exactly what their name implies – collect leeches. Typically, a leech collector was hired by a medical professional because leeches were used for many misguided medical procedures over the medieval centuries. The leeches would then be placed on certain spots on the body as a form of natural bloodletting.
Collecting leeches wasn’t as simple as going to your local creek and scooping them up. These individuals had to find swampy waters like bogs and marshes where leeches normally reside and would have to use some sort of bait to attract them for easier collection. Though some leech collectors used amputated body parts like horse legs, most simply used their own legs as a more affordable option.
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Leech collectors also could not simply wait for the leech to latch onto them and then pull them off. Leeches were difficult to remove when they first attached, which meant the leeches would have to feed off of the collector for around 20 minutes before they could be removed. The more leeches you collected, the more blood you lost by the end of the day, and that doesn’t even take into consideration any illnesses the leeches gave them. These factors made leech collecting a time-consuming and potentially dangerous job to take on.
Catching rats was essentially catching animals that can spread illness and steal more than enough human food. The Ratcatcher of medieval Paris by Abraham Bosse. (Abraham Bosse / TheMet)
Rat catcher was yet another unfortunate animal-related job developed in the 19th century. Since rats were responsible for many diseases being spread throughout Europe at this time, it was the job of the rat catchers to catch them and dispose of them to keep disease rates down. Typically, the rat catchers would block multiple rat holes at once except for one. Then, they would wait outside that one hole and collect as many rats as possible.
Between reducing disease and preventing damage to food supplies, rat catchers had an essential job in 19th-century Europe. Though the job of rat catchers was certainly an important one, rat catchers were generally looked down upon by the public. Their jobs were perceived as dirty, and others feared catching diseases from them since they came into contact with rats daily.
Luckily, the compensation often made up for the social backlash. Those that were particularly skilled at catching rats had higher earnings than those that caught less rats. Plus, rat catchers had a source of additional side income that not many discussed – at times, the rich would be so curious about rats that they would inquire about keeping one as a pet. The best rat catchers in the city would then sell the most beautiful rats to the rich so they could entertain themselves. Not bad for a rat catcher!
Have you ever wondered what ancient people did before alarm clocks? Simple – they had a knocker-up! Knocker-ups were individuals with regular sleep schedules that could be counted on to wake up early. These individuals would then be hired to go to homes in the neighborhood to wake up sleeping workers.
The knocker-up had a few different ways to get their clients awake. The easiest way was to bang on their window if the client lived on the first floor of a building. If they lived on an upper floor, the knocker-up would either use a long stick or broom to tap on their window or would shoot peas through a tube at the window to wake their clients!
Believe it or not, “professional farter” was once a real job! These individuals were called flatulists and would entertain crowds using farts as their primary material! These individuals would pass gas in amusing manners such as to music or even on cue to get big laughs. Irish gas performers were called braigetoirs rather than flatulists.
Flatulist work has existed for a surprisingly long time. Saint Augustine once wrote about flatulists, “[they] possessed such command of their bowels and can break wind continuously at will, so as to produce the effect of singing.” There were even flatulists that were considered celebrities of their time. One was Roland the Farter, who performed for Henry II’s court annually. After several years, Henry II rewarded him with 30 acres of land and a giant manor for his skilled entertainment.
If you’re not particularly good at remembering names, you certainly wouldn’t want to be a nomenclator. Nomenclators were slaves tasked with remembering other people’s names for their owners at public events. Since smartphones were not yet invented, nomenclators were a way to remember names without having to carry around a pen and paper during the party.
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Sometimes, the nomenclator would have to remember more information for his master if his master became drunk or otherwise inhibited. This information may include details from prior conversations or basic information about the individuals the master has spoken to throughout the evening. Essentially, nomenclators were phonebooks before it was cool.
Aren’t You Glad You’re Modern?
Clearly, ancient times had extremely interesting (and disgusting) jobs. Though some gross jobs still exist today, we are certainly lucky enough to live in times with civilization advanced enough that jobs like Barber-Surgeon, Leech Collector, and Knocker-Up are no longer necessary.
The next time you complain about your job, remember the lives of whipping boys and vomit collectors. Things could certainly be worse!
Top image: There are strange jobs, like cleaning toilets, and then there are really strange jobs, like the early barber surgeons of Europe, who drained you of blood, tore your mouth apart, and even stranger things. A sadistic tooth-drawer frightening his patient with a hot coal causing him to pull away violently in an 1810-AD color etching by J. Collier. Source: Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0
By Lex Leigh
Ade, Y. 2022. 8 unusual jobs that people had in the past. Available at: https://historyofyesterday.com/8-unusual-jobs-that-people-did-in-the-past-dede7b490693
Cain, Á. 2016. Here are 24 of history's weirdest jobs. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/weird-jobs-that-no-longer-exist-2016-6#groom-of-the-stool-1
Glover, A. 2021. 19 gruesome historical jobs I'm glad I'll never have to do. Available at: https://www.buzzfeed.com/aglover/worst-jobs-in-history
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