Think you hate your job? How would you like to be a “urinatore” or a “knocker upper”? As absurd as these job titles may sound, they actually existed (just be thankful you weren’t around to apply for them!). Want to learn more about these and other strange jobs from history? Then sit back in your chair, put your feet up on your desk and and give your boss a great big ‘thank you’ for not asking you to perform any of these tasks!
Despite what you’d think after reading this job title, urinatores were not really dealing with urine at all. The urinatores were salvage divers from Ostia. The name – with its similarity to urine – is probably a reference to the fact that the deep diving caused so much pressure on their abdomens that they urinated a lot. The divers had but one tool – a kettle shaped diving bell filled with air for breathing and weighed down with lead weights – to help the divers reach up to thirty meters below the surface. Their job was primarily salvage but they also moved construction equipment around. The dangers in this job are obvious but the pay was good – with many of the divers becoming very affluent members of Roman society.
No, this isn’t how Seth Rogen got famous. A knocker-upper was a profession in England and Ireland that started during and lasted well into the Industrial Revolution before alarm clocks were affordable or reliable. A knocker-upper’s job was to rouse sleeping people so they could get to work on time. The knocker-upper used a trucheon or short, heavy stick to knock on the clients’ doors or a long and light stick, often made of bamboo, to reach windows on higher floors. In return, the knocker-upper would be paid a few pence a week. The knocker-upper would not leave a client’s window until they were assured the client had been awoken. Generally the job was carried out by elderly men and women but sometimes police constables supplemented their pay by performing the task during early morning patrols.
Rome was famous for its extensive sewer system. But despite having such an advanced method of dealing with poop, most Roman’s didn’t have access to it (either because they lived on the hills, or were too poor for plumbing). And sometimes even those who could afford it, didn’t want it due to the smells that would leak into people’s homes and the rats and other vermin that lived in the sewers. This meant that most houses needed to deal with their poop in some other way. This is where the stercorarius comes in. He would travel door to door collecting all the human waste and cart it off to the edge of town where farmers would buy the dung for their crops.
The litter carrier was a slave whose job it was to cart women (and later men) around in little carriages. It was a hard job and a tedious one and could be dangerous (picture carrying a carriage up a flight of stairs!) The litter carriers were usually dressed in fine garments and the litters became more and more extravagant over the years. In fact, in later years many wealthy romans had windows of glass in their litters instead of the traditional curtains.
The gymnasiarch had a busy job in ancient Greece due to the popularity of athletics. Despite being a dirty job – the gymnasiarch had to oil and scrape the athletes as well as tidy up after wrestling matches and the gymnasium in general, the position was highly sought after by the rich as it was considered the epitome of philanthropic occupations. To qualify as gymnasiarch you had to be between thirty and sixty and you have a large net worth. One benefit of the job was that you got to carry a stick with which to beat sullen youths who misbehaved in the gym.
Curse Tablet Maker
Curse tablets were thin sheets of soft lead which had curses written on them. The curses were then affixed by nails to the altars or walls of temples. The poor curse tablet writer had sit day in and day out hearing the complaints and woes of his customers who needed curses written. Fortunately many of these curse tablets have survived to modern times so we can get a glimpse of life and the way thinking of the Romans. Here is one example: “bind every limb and sinew of Victorius, the charioteer for the Blue team.. the horses he is about to race… blind their eyes so they cannot see and twist their soul and heart so they cannot breathe.”
Here’s a job Tiger Woods would probably apply for! The orgy planner had a very unusual but very exciting job – he got to plan festivities for the rich of society and, in some cases, got many perks (which I am sure you can imagine by yourself!). The orgy planner had to organize food, women, music, and accommodation. The downside to the job is that the orgy planner was not liked by all members of society (particularly those who were never invited to orgies) and the trade was even banned for a short time.
The funeral clown was paid to dress up as the dead person, wear a mask of his face, and dance about acting like him. The Romans believed that this would placate the spirits of the dead and bring joy to the living. As the funeral processed, the funeral clown would run alongside the corpse with other clowns making jokes and mimicking the dead. Some clowns were very highly regarded and even got to mock the emperor at his funeral.
Somehow I don’t think Cesar Millan would want this job! A dog whipper was a church official charged with removing unruly dogs from a church or church grounds during services. In some areas of Europe during the 16th to 19th centuries it was not uncommon for household dogs to accompany – or at least follow – their owners to church services. If these animals became disruptive it was the job of the dog whipper to remove them from the church, allowing the service to continue in peace. Dog whippers were usually provided with a whip (hence the title) or a pair of large wooden tongs with which to remove the animals.
During the 1600’s in England, educating the future king created an interesting problem. Since the monarch’s blood line was considered divine, teachers and caretakers couldn’t punish the young prince even if he acted like a brat. The solution was obvious: get another young boy to take the punishment instead of the future king, hence the job of Whipping Boy. These scapegoats were usually chosen from the children of the nobility and educated along with the prince, living in the same quarters and playing together in their spare time. This meant that most of the time the prince was attached to the whipping boy and avoided doing badly so his friend wouldn’t be punished.
The toshers were scavengers in the sewers under London during the Victorian era. Whole families lived close to the sewers, and could be seen removing manhole covers in the morning in order to get underground to their workplace. An unexpected bonus of the job was that those toshers that survived were usually immune to various disease that killed many people in the ghettos, such as typhus. Unfortunately the bad smell and the fact that all your neighbors considered you a thief didn’t make the job very appealing.
The Gong Farmer
The gong farmer was the Tudor equivalent of a modern mobile toilet attendant. It was his job to empty the privies (a row of holes in a wooden plank over a tank) of private households. Once the farmer’s vat was full of ‘gong’ (dung), he carted it outside the city walls. The job was so unsavory that gong farmers were only allowed to work during the night and were forced to live together in designated areas. When tobacco arrived in this country most gong farmers became heavy smokers to mask the gut-wrenching pong of the gong!
Searchers of the Dead
It sounds like the title of a bad horror movie, so imagine what the job description was like! Searchers of the dead sought out plague victims. Once they were identified, the house would be boarded up and the rest of the family quarantined. If you spent your time visiting plague-ridden households, chances were you’d catch it yourself, so the job wasn’t a sought-after position. Searchers of the dead were mostly older women, destitute but with enough medical knowledge to spot plague victims. The pay wasn’t great at the best of times, about four pence per body, but prices plummeted during the Great Plague, because the authorities couldn’t afford to pay for the hundreds of people dying everyday.
Groom of the Stool
Talk about a sh$%^y job! The Groom of the Stool was a male servant in the household of an English monarch who, among other duties, “presided over the office of royal excretion,” that is, he had the task of cleaning the monarch’s anus after defecation. In the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, the title was awarded to minions of the King, court companions who spent time with him in the Privy chamber. These were the sons of noblemen or important members of the gentry. In time they came to act as virtual personal secretaries to the King, carrying out a variety of administrative tasks within his private rooms. The position was an especially prized one, as it allowed one unobstructed access to the King’s attention. Despite being the official bum-wiper of the king, the Groom of the Stool had a very high social standing.
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