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I'd like to send this letter to the Prussian consulate in Siam by aeromail. Am I too late for the 4:30 autogyro?
March 5, 2010 12:30 PM   Subscribe

The Jobs Of Yesteryear: Obsolete Occupations
posted by Rhomboid (105 comments total) 88 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ooh! Is automobile-building robot builder on the list? Because I am pretty sure all the automobile-building robots are built by other (non-union) robots.
posted by Mister_A at 12:37 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Awesome article.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:37 PM on March 5, 2010


Trouble with those lectors, they were all goddamned hypocrites.
posted by tigrefacile at 12:38 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


The iceman disappeareth.
posted by missmary6 at 12:43 PM on March 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


I must be old. I can remember about half of these from my youth
posted by rocket88 at 12:44 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Through the 1980s, many long-distance phone calls were routed through operators. There were a limited number of lines or circuits for long-distance locations. If all circuits were busy, operators would take down the number of the caller and ring him back when a circuit was available.

No way!
posted by lunasol at 12:45 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


If we focus upon America only, it is safe to say:
anything that can be done by man or machine will be done by machine.
anything that can be outsourced will be.
anything that requires a human being to be present (ie, cab drivers, surgeons, in court lawyers)
will be safe.
anything that can be done to reduce the number of full-time people to "contract" workers or part- time workers, will be.
anything that can be paid for under the table will be.
anything that can be done by illegals (for some time to come) will be.
anything that can be salary free and called an "internship" will continue to flourish.
posted by Postroad at 12:46 PM on March 5, 2010 [12 favorites]


Out of all of these, I think the one I miss the most is "typesetter." Because now everyone thinks it's the easiest thing in the world to just change the copy any ole time. So what if it's on press? Deadlines are for other people, I'm a snowflake! And hey, let's see what that looks like in Helvetica!
posted by Mister_A at 12:51 PM on March 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


Great post. The River Drivers brought to mind that old Canadian Film Board Sketch "The Log Driver's Waltz" and now it's stuck in my head.
posted by empatterson at 12:57 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Lector. That brings back memories. My grandfather lived in Ybor City as a kid, and his brothers and sister worked for a time in the cigar factories. He used to tell me stories about the lectors. They'd read newspaper articles and do different voices for the quoted people, and then in the afternoon they'd read novels. Serialized, and adapted on the fly for reading out loud. He said his favorite was Don Quixote. The lectors were minor celebrities in the neighborhood, maybe like the level of a local radio personality today.

The first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a lector.
posted by penduluum at 12:59 PM on March 5, 2010 [29 favorites]


This is great, nicely collected and written and a little sad. I love the idea of a lector. A tiny grace notes in people's lives that is now gone.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:59 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Great post!

I remember learning how to set type when I was in Junior High School. That was shortly before desktop publishing came to be but I still remember the teacher teaching it as if it was a valuable skill that we would one day need. Most of us just made up business cards that said "Ozzy Rules!"

My dad worked as a pinsetter when he was young and I have very vague memories of glass milk bottles and a basket that the milk man would leave us.

We also had an in-ground garbage pail that my brother remembers would get emptied now and then by local pig farmers.

And I also remember we'd receive long distance calls from my aunts in Ireland or Colorado and it was An Event. We'd turn the TV down so my mom could hear her sister and, of course, it all happened through an operator.

My son plays photo-realistic games on my phone and he has no concept of TV shows only happening at certain times and on certain channels. Fucker.
posted by bondcliff at 1:00 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Oh wow, I LOVE the audio clips from people who did these jobs. This whole piece has that great museum-feel.

That said, I do remember a few of these jobs. Having a milkman was so cool. We'll take a container of chocolate milk this time, too, please.

And on preview: me, too, empatterson.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:02 PM on March 5, 2010


anything that requires a human being to be present (ie, cab drivers, surgeons, in court lawyers) will be safe.

Don't know about the lawyers and surgeons, but give it 30 years on cab drivers. I suspect program piloted cabs and buses will become the norm.
posted by Caduceus at 1:03 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bah, bottle not "container".
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:03 PM on March 5, 2010


[runs up hysterically to driver's side window]

You're next!
posted by Joe Beese at 1:05 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Awesome post -- I always thought the one charming thing about London, Ontario's Kingsmills department store was their elevator operator...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:06 PM on March 5, 2010


Yes, a collect call for Mrs. Floyd from Mr. Floyd. Will you accept the charges from the United States?
posted by Pollomacho at 1:06 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


My dad worked as a pinsetter, too. Neat to see a pic of what his job would have been like.
posted by gurple at 1:07 PM on March 5, 2010


I was a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman about twenty years ago. I wonder if anyone still does that.
posted by Cookiebastard at 1:11 PM on March 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


My grandmother was an operator for Ma Bell back in the day. Her claim to fame was that she connected the first mobile phone call in the state back in 1985. She also was quite vocal about how draconian the working conditions were "...when they couldn't even see us, they didn't know if we were wearing a long skirt or long johns, for goodness sake."

Oddly enough, I learned typesetting as part of my BFA and still get to show off that skill on very rare occasions (there are a few ancient letterpress machines and a creaky linotype on the university campus I work at).

So I guess I'll go over to her house this afternoon to sit on the porch with her and shake our fists at the neighborhood kids, well, the ones that are actually outside and not on XBox live or Facebook, anyway.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 1:18 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are so many jobs that are currently still active that I've never even heard of, but jobs that disappeared decades if not cneturies ago fascinate me.

While reading Lunar Men I learned about Lantern Boys, which were basically kids that waited outside of pubs in the pre street lamp days with lanterns, and they'd guide patrons home through the dark. The Lunar Men, being so smart, held their monthly gatherings during the full moon so they could walk home in the moon light and not have to pay for the lit escort home. That was a job that I never would have imagined a need for.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 1:21 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


OK, how many of us looked at this and said, "Man, I wish I could be a lector!"? I know I did.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:22 PM on March 5, 2010 [13 favorites]


Lamplighters in New York City at the turn of the century were responsible for lighting 200-300 streetlights an hour.

I find that hard to believe. We have replica 19th century streetlamps in my neighborhood which are electric but I help put wreaths on them every Christmas and I can't see hitting that many in an hour. If they're spaced about 50 feet apart, you'd be covering 2 - 3 miles which is a reasonable walking speed but not if you're stopping every 50 feet to climb a ladder.

Cool article though, I'll have to take the time to listen to the interviews when I get home.
posted by octothorpe at 1:24 PM on March 5, 2010


....my building has en elevator operator.
posted by The Whelk at 1:27 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Back when I had just graduated from college back in (Jesus) 1991, I was living in a shitty apartment building in Portland, OR. I happened to be home one day, I guess it was a weekend, when I heard a knock at my door. Upon opening the door, I beheld a gentleman in his 50s or so, in a simple suit and tie, holding a large case.

"Good afternoon, sir," he said. "Fuller Brush Man! Any wants or needs?"

Completely nonplussed, I stammered, "Uh, I don't think so."

"Well, all right then!" he replied. "You have a good afternoon."

I shut the door and just kind of stared at it for a while.

This anecdote really has no point. I mean other than FULLER BRUSH MAN, WHAT?
posted by Skot at 1:28 PM on March 5, 2010 [26 favorites]


It's stuff like this that always makes me smile and laugh when I see complaints about the loss of manufacturing jobs, or complaints about outsourcing, etc. Some of those jobs should be done away with, for many reasons.

No one would've jumped up to protect the jobs of the country's vital force of bowling pinsetters. Yet we'll take to the streets to save a smoke-belching factory, and claim that we're doing it to ensure the jobs of future generations. "Really? You want your kid to work super hard to be ... what? A pipefitter? That's it? That's your plan?"

When I was a kid, the garbage truck was manned by two guys -- one to drive, and one to take lids off the cans, lift the can, throw the garbage into the hopper, put the can back and replace the lid. Over and over. All day. Every day.

Now there's three guys and three trucks, each with a robot arm to grab the can (with an attached lid), and there are three cans, one each for trash, recycling and yard waste/compost.

Hopefully, no one was defending the right of the lift-the-can guy to keep his job. Hopefully, someone trained him to drive the recycling truck.

Yes, we still need manufacturing jobs and people trained to work with their hands, and trade schools can lift people up from shitty lives. And we need more educational opportunities, at all levels.

But let's recognize that some professions die. Moreover, some of them need to die.

Quickly. Before someone gets hurt. Like the bowling pinsetter girls that would get their fingers smashed by impatient drunks.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:35 PM on March 5, 2010 [10 favorites]


you'd be covering 2 - 3 miles which is a reasonable walking speed but not if you're stopping every 50 feet to climb a ladder

Some used ladders but they also had long sticks.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:36 PM on March 5, 2010


but not if you're stopping every 50 feet to climb a ladder

In period movies, they're portrayed as walking their routes on stilts.
posted by amyms at 1:40 PM on March 5, 2010


This hits close to home. When I was in high school I worked as a "bottle boy". In Oregon, there's a deposit on beer and soft drink bottles. My job was to count the bottles and cans brought in by customers and then write them a receipt to be redeemed at the register. Every supermarket in Oregon had people who did this. In 1994 or so, bottle and can counting machines began to replace bottle boys.
posted by chrchr at 1:58 PM on March 5, 2010


Now there's three guys and three trucks, each with a robot arm to grab the can (with an attached lid), and there are three cans, one each for trash, recycling and yard waste/compost.

Where do you live? I've never seen a garbage truck with a robot arm before. Sounds cool but scary.
posted by octothorpe at 2:07 PM on March 5, 2010


Zeppelin Piloteer.
Oyster racer.
Outhouse Jumper.


These are the forgotten jobs.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:08 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


As if I need another reminder that I'm getting on in years....my very first job was at a Fortune 500 company (unlike the majority of my peers who ended up in fast food or at K-Mart) - I was in my junior year of high school and was hired there as a co-op on the recommendation of my guidance counselor. My main job was as a telex operator. I also had to learn the PBX switchboard so that I could fill in when the regular operator was on vacation or out sick. After I graduated from high school I was made the full-time Telex operator, and since there was a lot of down-time (and the Telex operator fell under the jurisdiction of the Advertising Department for some reason), the company paid for my college tuition as long as I studied advertising/graphic arts while working a minimum of 30 hours per week. Of course, the keylining I learned at the time (and used for many years on the job until I was laid off) - with its use of Letraset rub-off letters and Chartpak tape and typesetting on clay paper and endless measuring and marking off with non-photo blue pencil - has gone the way of the dinosaur since computers entered the picture.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:09 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Y'all might be interested in the Guardian series Disappearing Acts. The narrated slides are fantastic.
posted by djgh at 2:12 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Lamplighters in New York City at the turn of the century were responsible for lighting 200-300 streetlights an hour.

I had to stop and do the math too. That's 12 to 18 seconds per light. I don't think so. Especially if you've got to lug a ladder along and climb up it at every light.
posted by Naberius at 2:20 PM on March 5, 2010


My mom was a telephone operator in the 50s. She worked in a college town, and tells stories about the students trying to dodge the long-distance costs by making coded collect calls to their parents, like, "Hi, I'd like to place a collect call from Miss Blue Shoes, please." The idea being that the parent on the other end would refuse the charges, but then be smart enough to put the blue shoes in the mail.

She says that back then students used to mail their laundry home to be washed, too. I can't imagine.
posted by not that girl at 2:23 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Where do you live? I've never seen a garbage truck with a robot arm before. Sounds cool but scary.

Dude, they're everywhere in the U.S. They even have fan clubs.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:24 PM on March 5, 2010


I spent quite a number of years honing my skills with a swivel knife, amberlith & a copy camera. Also. Letraset Press-type. Formaline. Rapidograph. Reduction/enlargement wheel.

Gone, gone, gone. Not like I miss having to do any of that. *command-tabs to Illustrator, hits "print..." button*
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:25 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's stuff like this that always makes me smile and laugh when I see complaints about the loss of manufacturing jobs, or complaints about outsourcing, etc. Some of those jobs should be done away with, for many reasons.

No one would've jumped up to protect the jobs of the country's vital force of bowling pinsetters. Yet we'll take to the streets to save a smoke-belching factory, and claim that we're doing it to ensure the jobs of future generations. "Really? You want your kid to work super hard to be ... what? A pipefitter? That's it? That's your plan?"
...

...But let's recognize that some professions die. Moreover, some of them need to die.

...And if somebody ever takes your livelihood away, will you be nearly as flippant? Just because menial jobs like these don't fit your idea of what a career should be based upon doesn't mean that people don't rely on them to keep their families fed. How, pray tell, should someone react to the news that a job they need in order to provide for their children "needs to die"?
posted by Toby Dammit X at 2:32 PM on March 5, 2010 [11 favorites]


Lantern Boys, which were basically kids that waited outside of pubs in the pre street lamp days with lanterns, and they'd guide patrons home through the dark. The Lunar Men, being so smart, held their monthly gatherings during the full moon so they could walk home in the moon light and not have to pay for the lit escort home. That was a job that I never would have imagined a need for.

Linkboys, they were called in the Renaissance. In The Merchant of Venice Lorenzo elopes with Shylock's daughter Jessica by dressing her up as a linkboy...she walks away from the house hidden in plain sight.
posted by jrochest at 2:36 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I still love my job as chimney sweep. Dirty and a bit confining but I felt a bit like Santa Claus and had my ups and downs.
posted by Postroad at 2:45 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thank you, Rhomboid.
posted by clockzero at 2:49 PM on March 5, 2010


Also, this:

When the first commercial telephone exchange began in Boston in 1878, teenage boys were hired to be operators. But after they played too many pranks on their customers, the company started hiring women,

is hilarious.
posted by clockzero at 2:54 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have my milk delivered by a milkman (in London). He also delivers juice and a variety of other groceries.
posted by mr. strange at 2:57 PM on March 5, 2010


Cool Papa Bell: "Where do you live? I've never seen a garbage truck with a robot arm before. Sounds cool but scary.

Dude, they're everywhere in the U.S. They even have fan clubs.
"

Christ, that thing is terrifying looking. I don't thing that they could get that to fit in the alleyways of Pittsburgh though and they'd never convince everyone to buy a specialized trash can.
posted by octothorpe at 3:02 PM on March 5, 2010


There is a difference between the disapeerance of select professions, and the withering of an entire economic sector. When agriculture gave way to manufacturing as the largest sector of employment, those manufacturing jobs paid substantially more than agricultural labour. But as manufacturing withers and people are left to move into the tertiary/service sector, almost all low and middle-status service sector jobs pay substantially less than those manufacturing jobs did -- and there are not as many to go around.
posted by jb at 3:17 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


lector? hardly knew her.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 3:22 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


During my career my job has gone from The Job of Tomorrow to The Job of Yesteryear.
posted by lekvar at 3:26 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was sort of hoping scrivening would be on this list - until printing became more widespread, people who wrote documents out by hand were needed in New York and other cities, and would spend all day simply copying out boring prose on important legal papers. I used to know a guy who thought that it would be fun to be a scrivener, but personally I have to say: I would prefer not to.
posted by koeselitz at 3:36 PM on March 5, 2010 [16 favorites]


...And if somebody ever takes your livelihood away, will you be nearly as flippant?

Umm ... you're talking to someone that used to have a newspaper job. Which, more than a decade ago, I saw was going to go away fast. So I trained myself to do something else.

I believe in vastly increasing educational opportunities at all levels, especially mid-career training.

I don't believe in effort spent, of any kind, to preserve jobs that are being outpaced and being made obsolete by simple market forces.

You're a shirtmaker? Cool. But we're not making shirts in this country any more, because it's cheaper to have that done somewhere else. We don't have to like it, but there it is. Here, take this textbook. Now you're a licensed vocational nurse. Congrats. What's that? Save the shirt factory? Raise tariffs on shirts coming from overseas? Why? So you can keep your job making shirts? What are you, nuts? Wasn't shirtmaking, like, dangerous? Didn't people fall into the machines every now and again? And wasn't it dumping all sorts of dyes and detergents and shit into the river? Why in hell would you want to save something like that? If you really, really, really love to make shirts, I can give you another textbook. Here, this one's titled, "Modern Fashion Design." That sounds fun, right? Better than being fucking bent over a machine making thousands of shirts all day...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:40 PM on March 5, 2010 [9 favorites]


About those lamplighters, I learned an interesting tidbit that some had special bicycles constructed with very tall proportions so they could ride from lamp to lamp without the need for a ladder. Getting on and of only occurred at the start and end of the route (with the help of a ladder presumably).
posted by Catfry at 4:00 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Good afternoon, sir," he said. "Fuller Brush Man! Any wants or needs?"
Completely nonplussed, I stammered, "Uh, I don't think so."
"Well, all right then!" he replied. "You have a good afternoon."


Probably just as well that you didn't buy anything from him-- he may have been a con man. I bought my first home in 91 and when the Fuller Brush Man came to my door I paid in advance for several items (broom, mop, dust pan.) I didn't notice that my receipt had no contact number on it. Duh. I was looking for that Fuller Brush Man for months!

I lived in England in 1977 and I remember if you didn't get up at the crack of dawn to bring your milk in, the birds would break through the foil top and drink the cream.

Also when I was a kid in the suburbs of So Cal, not only did we have the bookmobile, the traveling Sears photography van, the candy van, the ice cream man, and the milk man, we also had the Helms Bread truck which stopped in twice a week to deliver bread and baked items. Back then most suburban families did not have 2 cars and moms were stuck out in the middle of nowhere unless they got up early and drove the dad to work in the city.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:02 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Nobody dast blame this milkman. And for a milkman, there is no curdled cream to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a milk truck. And when they start being lactose intolerant — that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your white hat, and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A milkman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

If milk delivery is making a comeback, it's not exactly obsolete is it? Anyway I'm not messing with Reid Fleming.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:11 PM on March 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


you're talking to someone that used to have a newspaper job. Which, more than a decade ago, I saw was going to go away fast. So I trained myself to do something else.

I'm glad you were privileged enough to do so. Consider that there are those who are not.
posted by runningwithscissors at 4:12 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


I graduated high school in '93, and think that I was in one of the last classes to actually take "Typing" on actual typewriters instead of "Keyboarding" with PS/2 model 25s and WordPerfect.

Much preferred the IBM Selectric typewriters to the fancy electronic ones with line buffer, etc that most of the class used. I think my teacher from back then would be overjoyed now to see me doing 115wpm on an IBM Model M keyboard and annoying my coworkers to death.
posted by mrbill at 4:15 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I will avoid a cannibal lector joke and instead say:

I worked as a freight elevator operator in the Empire State building in NYC. It was a great job. Highly sought after. I actually quit when they pulled me from the elevator so that they could put a new guy in. They wanted to put me in the Concourse bathroom as a cleaner. Again.

No way. I had 5 years of seniority and did my part cleaning tourist shit off of walls. I paid my dues (union and time). When I went to the union they told me that the guy paid $1000 cash to get the job. If I could match it, they'd "take care of me." I told the union rep to go fuck himself and walked out.

This was during the Gus Bevona days if anyone who worked for 32 B/J remembers him. Rampant featherbedding and crap like this finally brought him down.

Sorry for the threadjack. Excellent FPP. Thanks.
posted by Splunge at 4:18 PM on March 5, 2010 [12 favorites]


During my lifetime.

The lamplighters in Bristol (ca 1945) had long sticks as I remember.
The milkmen are still there but now deliver a wider variety of stuff.
Chemists (pharmacists?) in Surrey (1958) made their own pills.
Most school-leavers (girls) were expected to be typists - if they didnt immediately get married.
Boys would work in the Ronson lighter factory.
In the advertising world if you wanted half a page in The Standard you went to a spaceman who sat in a Fleet Street pub and had to start by buying him a drink.
Dockers (longshoremen?) in Stockholm (and lots of other places) have been replaced
by container (roro) ships.

Then I lost track and went with the flow.

And you tell that to the kids today
- they dont believe yer
posted by jan murray at 4:25 PM on March 5, 2010 [8 favorites]


About those lamplighters, I learned an interesting tidbit that some had special bicycles constructed with very tall proportions so they could ride from lamp to lamp without the need for a ladder. Getting on and of only occurred at the start and end of the route (with the help of a ladder presumably).

Yeah, the original tallbikes. My dad set type by hand, and it was obsolete before he retired. I'm also old enough to remember real milkmen, coming to my house in Rhawnhurst, Northeast Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Ted the Sealtest guy. Plenty of lectors left in Cuba, though some rollers listen to those new-fangled 78s.
posted by fixedgear at 4:26 PM on March 5, 2010


Rampant featherbedding ...

I learned a new word today. Thanks Splunge!
posted by griphus at 4:33 PM on March 5, 2010


Hmm... It seems that in my threadjack that I forgot to mention that the freight elevators in the ESB were original 1930 equipment. So they had the crank that made them go. The elevator that I was in went from the basement to the 86th floor. The cables made a sound that was kinda scary. I mean, almost 90 floors of braided steel cable.

And we would kinda abuse them. Fast starts, sudden stops. The cables would sing a song of death it seemed, sometimes.

My favorite move was to bring the elevator down fast and snap the handle to stop near the end of the trip in the basement. Then fling the doors open so that it would slowly drift to floor level with me sitting on the floor of the elevator (my legs hanging over the edge).

It was totally against the rules and extremely dangerous.

All the guys on garbage detail would applaud.

WTF was I thinking? I'm lucky to still have my legs.

Hell. I was in my mid thirties. I was a stupid kid.
posted by Splunge at 4:56 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm the elevator operator in the building I manage in Baltimore, but since the building's only open to the public once a month and I'm the only guy allowed by liability rules to run the original hand-controlled 1910 Otis elevator, I've been accused of essentially using the elevator as a company car to the bathroom. What can I say—the 14th floor loo has the best view, and I love running the lift. There's skill and subtlety in it, the judgment to hold off on the controls or accelerate, to park it right square on the line and swing open that brass gate, and then the glass-panel door that looks into the windowed elevator shaft.

I grew up immersed in the microfilm business (a family industry, as it happened), so I'm cursed blessed with a huge set of skills in an industry that's almost obsolete (it's saved from oblivion by serious document archivists, who recognize that it is still the only properly archival reproduction storage system for data people hope to retrieve a century or more from now). I remember visiting the Smithsonian a decade or so ago and finding an IBM 29 card punch machine and an IBM punch card duplicator on display, accompanied by semi-inaccurate text condescendingly describing the equipment as obsolete. I found that amusing, seeing as I'd spent a week coding aperture cards and running off punched dupes on better-preserved examples of the same machines, but who am I to judge?

I took a moment to track down a registrar and offer to rework the patch panel (you programmed this thing with a million little wires on a patch panel that folded out of the massive machine on a mechanism so sturdy and elegant it should have been a part of a Bugatti roadster), but I was rudely rebuffed. So much for accuracy at the Smithsonian (and my suggestion that their card on the Commodore 64, erroneously listing its CPU as a 6502, received a similar snooty nose).

Of course, I grew up in a house where TV was considered a video malignancy, and thus spent my childhood listening to the two hours of vintage and contemporary radio drama that WAMU FM used to play every weeknight before they went "pro," so anachronism lies deep within me.
posted by sonascope at 4:57 PM on March 5, 2010 [18 favorites]


I'm surprised by how interesting my 7 yr old found this.

(He also quite liked Axe Cop. I have to watch him, or he's going to start reading mefi on his own. Which scares me.)
posted by selfmedicating at 4:59 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


...and I love running the lift. There's skill and subtlety in it, the judgment to hold off on the controls or accelerate, to park it right square on the line and swing open that brass gate...

Yes! YES!

Damn, now I'm all excited.

This old man thanks you.

::wipes away tear::
posted by Splunge at 5:01 PM on March 5, 2010


♪The Old Lamplighter from long, long, ago....♫
posted by evilcolonel at 5:16 PM on March 5, 2010


I went with my mom to the "Information Age: People, Information & Technology" exhibit at the Museum of American History a few years ago. We spent a while there looking at the 60:s tech (typewriters and phone switchboards), while she told me about working as a typist in the typing pool, taking dictation, etc. When I was a kid she still used stenography to take notes sometimes, which is kinda cool and weird.

But the most interesting thing was talking about the phone and the switchboard. Where she grew up, a neighboring lady was the switchboard operator, which she ran out of the front of the house. When she wasn't there, anyone walking by - including kids - would help do the switching. She said that it was a part of the day - if the bell rang and the neighbor wasn't there, anyone who heard it would go do the switching. So much more relaxed than these days...
posted by gemmy at 5:18 PM on March 5, 2010


"The only known practical use of the tall bike is a late 1800's lamp lighting system by which a worker would mount a specialized tall bicycle while equipped with a torch for lighting gas lamps. As the worker rode to each lamp, they would lean against the lamp post, light the lamp, and then ride to the next. Upon completing the circuit of lamps, an assistant would help the rider dismount."

Lamplighter bicycle.
posted by tzikeh at 5:33 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Christ, that thing is terrifying looking. I don't thing that they could get that to fit in the alleyways of Pittsburgh though and they'd never convince everyone to buy a specialized trash can.
posted by octothorpe at 5:02 PM on March 5 [+] [!]


I'm not sure, since my complex just has a communal dumpster, but I think when you sign up for trash service with my city, you are technically 'renting' your trash can, so they're all going to be the appropriate size for lifting :)
posted by rubah at 6:02 PM on March 5, 2010


I hadn't read through the comments when I posted my reply, but some of the conversation made me want to add a little to the mix. As someone who grew up in an "obsolete" business, or at least in a business that pretty much disappeared over the course of my prime years, there's really a pang that comes with watching it all fade away.

I was handling film when I was ten, sitting at a light table next to my dad, who showed me how you wind it from reel to reel, watching for defects and flaws, pausing occasionally to bend over the film and examine a frame with a loupe. He started the business in our living room in Scaggsville, which ended up as a strange mixture of mismatched antiques and a pair of Bell & Howell planetary cameras on folding tables, and we progressed from there to a small space in town, to a larger space in town, to a big building and $24 million a year running through the company.

I was never really committed to signing on with the family business, but it's family, you go along for the ride, and one day, you just realize that you really love what you're doing. Better than that—I am a super-duper crazy spectacular micrographic ninja. Seriously. I can smell when a deep tank processor is running one percent hot, or hear the little imperceptible tick that our #2 silver film duplicator would make when the circlip retaining it's capstan roller was about to pop off and fly across the room, where I'd have to crawl around looking for it in red safelight (yellow for direct dupe film) before the capstan could drift off its shaft. I'd sit in the diazo duplicating room, the air so thick with residual anhydrous ammonia fumes that I was guaranteed absolute solitude to read a book while running off copies, because only me and residents of Neptune could breathe in there.

With three tools, I can completely break down a Bruning OP40 fiche duplicator and reset a clamp mechanism in twenty minutes, and I can change out a single reel of film on a running Xidex 16/35 duplicator without slowing the feed down at all, hands like blurs, snatching film, feeding reels, easing the take-up with the heel of my right hand to avoid making a scratch on the film in the tank as the take-up engages with a yank.

It's all jargon, I know, but the thing here is this—I know these machines and the processes of turning paper into film. There's this sort of physical combining, a sensation that these clunky old mechanisms turn to limbs and organs, extensions of myself. I know them even now, seven years after I finally left the last of it behind, and I will, on my deathbed, still know exactly how to feed the vesicular film printer without burning myself.

When the world went digital, we went, too, scanning and putting data on magneto-optical disks, tapes, and CD-ROMS where the media cost $90 a disk and writing a disk was so nervewracking you'd almost vomit from the tension of waiting as it burned at 1X. There's a lot to be said for digital, and for the way that text and images zing around the world so effortlessly, and I wouldn't want to go backwards to the days of the horrendous Kodak Oracle film indexing system, but still...there's this pang.

You just don't expect a career you spent a lifetime learning to just go.

When the family business collapsed, a victim of a few key mistakes in anticipating new technologies (scanning and storage systems were in wild flux in the late-eighties, early-nineties, and the consequences of getting on board with a engineering dead-end were often fatal) and other disasters. The early digital equipment was so expensive that a dud released long before it was ready would cost you $150k for equipment and another $200k in having programmers on-site 24/7, and that, as they say, was that.

The business died, and took my dad with it, and I ended up crossing over with a new company, but it was a multi-national roll-up where the salesmen sold lies, like the archival lifetime of digital data, which was years in the single digits at the start and hasn't gone much further since. I had a hard time making the change from film to digital not because I'm not smart enough to do it, but rather because the technology wasn't there, and the idiot customers with shiny futuristic visions met the idiot salesmen with shiny talk, under the thumb of bean counters who came up with MBAs in theory and not a trace of experience with the business or a sense of history to avoid making old mistakes.

As it turns out, I left the business in total frustration, taking my degree in poetry and my twenty years of experience in microfilm, and went on to be a moderately successful building contractor and then a pretty happy facility manager, where my mechanical skills and my detail awareness intersect reasonably well, but there's still a..pang, you know? You figure on your line of work changing, growing, evolving, but you don't expect it to evaporate, and it's sad, if only to a clockwork-loving clunk-o-nerd like myself.

I had stretches where I went looking for work where I really felt sick about it, that my resume meant so little to the world the way it is after years when I could make miracles. Impossible deadlines? Mechanical impossibilities? Pushing efficiencies past long-set limits? I could do some amazing stuff, and suddenly, there I was, a guy with a college degree in poetry and a boatload of skills no one gave a shit about. That's an awful, sad thing to feel, and it's still there, deep in the sense memory—the visceral awareness of having been left behind.

Things come and go, and it's the way of the world, to be sure, but it's pretty rough being there when it's your thing that's going.
posted by sonascope at 6:19 PM on March 5, 2010 [437 favorites]


What a fantastic and sad and fantastic post, sonascope. Thank you.
posted by generalist at 6:43 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am a manual machinist using the same sort of lathe and mill that you would have seen in metal shops back in the 1940's and before, I know there are brilliant minds at work trying to put me out of work but is has not happened yet.
I am surprised that more of my work is not outsourced to other lands but tight due dates and quality concerns keep my customers coming back.
When I started my first factory job in the seventies there was a guy there that had gone to trade school to learn how to repair linotype machines and they were obsolete the moment he left school and I try to keep him in mind as to what the future may bring.
posted by Iron Rat at 7:13 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Wow. When I think of obsolete jobs, I think of jobs like hog reeve, fence viewer, Flax sealer, and more. I still know people who do some of the jobs NPR talks about. I wonder about their audience sometimes.
posted by jessamyn at 7:22 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm a features VFX digital plate restoration artist-- the far end from what sonascope's describing.

I spend all day, 8 to 10 hours per day, staring into a high-end compositing program, clone-brushing or patching out single pixels of dust, pieces of hair (the cameraman's, or maybe the scanning and recording operator's, who knows), blobs of rainbow color (the negatives don't dry right sometimes), flakes of plastic (film cores degrade as the scanner feeds the film through). I know when the film got scanned out of rack, I know when the plate's just crap and needs a rescan, I know how to paintfix my way out of just about any weird-ass scratch or scrape the scanrec vendor can throw at me.

I am the only plate resto left at my office. I certainly don't expect to stay there more than, say, a year or so, at least not doing this. It's cheaper to do it outside of the US. There are better pipeline solutions than "one person staring into a paint program," faster alternatives, dedicated systems like DRS Correct for handling restorations...

...but there are also things like the Panasonic Genesis, the Sony F23, the Red One, the Dalsa Origin. Digital cinema. No more using up petroleum to make plastic film. No more fucking around with emulsions. My husband was a scanning and recording op; he's already made the jump from "messing with an Arrilaser and a scanner all day" to "messing with LTO-4 drives and FireWire all day," bless him, and he's secure. I know I am a lost artist in a lost art.

It's an uneasy feeling on the best of days.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:50 PM on March 5, 2010 [10 favorites]


Somebody sidebar sonascope, stat.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:00 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


My first obsolete job was the summer after high school (1960)
I was a computer. No, I didn't operate one. I was one.

I solved a variety of problems for a ship engineering firm. The one I remember most was solving Laplace's equation using relaxation methods (google if you care). I had a big card with a grid of numbers on it. I would look for the number that was bigger than the four numbers nearest it on the grid, and replace it with the average of those four numbers. After a few days, it solved Laplace's equation.

The firm was on Wall Street, and employed a number of students. At lunch, we would often see how high we could get in the skyscrapers. I particularly remember we got to the roof of this building. At that time, it had no antennas, but was a pleasant flat area paved with terracotta tiles. It had a lovely view. On most other buildings, the top few floors were devoted to elevator machinery, with only a few small windows.

Then we would run down sixty stories of stairs. Not too many locks and no guards.

My last Fuller Brush Man sighting was 1973 or so. I picked up my last hitchhiker around 1990--who proved to be a prostitute disappointed at my lack of interest.

I guess the message is: your world SUCKS!
posted by hexatron at 8:25 PM on March 5, 2010 [11 favorites]


Somebody sidebar sonascope, stat.

I'd done it before you posted this.
posted by jessamyn at 8:46 PM on March 5, 2010


Don't know about the lawyers and surgeons, but give it 30 years on cab drivers. I suspect program piloted cabs and buses will become the norm.

Robotic Surgery

I right there with you on the robot cabs. I'm sure lawyering could be done via outsourced remote video chat, but that other lawyers will sue to stop that from happening.

Plumber's jobs are probably safe.
posted by fings at 9:24 PM on March 5, 2010


I work i the printing industry, and, as has been pointed out again and again here on the blue, it's dying. Everybody's hurting right now, but I've seen some of the oldest regional printers just... give up. It's too hard to compete with teh internets and the global economy simultaneously.

Sonascope's post is excellent. But for me the part that hurts the most isn't the time spent or the depreciated skillset. The worst part for me is knowing I have to switch industries but not knowing which one to choose, because any of them could be the next to fall. I'm terrified that I'll end up where I am now in ten years, in an industry that's fallen victim to the remorseless march of progress. No matter how much education I get, if that education is no longer valued, if the skills are obsolete, I'm right back at square one.
posted by lekvar at 9:53 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman about twenty years ago. I wonder if anyone still does that.

Yup. Two of my college friends sold encyclopedias door to door during summer of 2006. Definitely hasn't gone the way of the dodo yet.

In high school in the early 2000s I had a job finding related links to publish at the bottoms of stories in an ill-fated online magazine. Most of my time was spent actually finding relevant websites. At the time, I hadn't heard of Google, although I guess they were around by then. I had a big set of search engines and aggregators I'd use to find the best stories. Essentially, I was a manual version of Google News back when it was still hard to search the web. This was under ten years ago and now you'd have to be nuts to pay a person to do just that as a job. That's just how it goes.

I guess this might be part of why I studied computer science in college. If we're going to automate things, if that's how it's going to be, I'd like to at least be the person who knows how to automate things. In high school I got paid $15 an hour to do a job that I could now write a program to do.
posted by little light-giver at 10:37 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


not that girl: "My mom was a telephone operator in the 50s. She worked in a college town, and tells stories about the students trying to dodge the long-distance costs by making coded collect calls to their parents, like, "Hi, I'd like to place a collect call from Miss Blue Shoes, please." The idea being that the parent on the other end would refuse the charges, but then be smart enough to put the blue shoes in the mail."

"Operator? I'd like to make a collect call please. First name 'Bob'... last name is 'Wehoddabebi-Yzzaboy.'"
posted by Rhaomi at 11:13 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't think I can read the links...the comments themselves make me want to cry or hyperventilate out of sheer nostalgia's sake.
posted by redsparkler at 12:57 AM on March 6, 2010


I realized a couple of weeks ago that the first job I ever loved must be obsolete now.

When I was an art history undergrad, I worked in the department's slide library. These were the days before PowerPoint, and if a professor wanted to discuss an image with the class, he or she had to be able to get a slide of it to project on the screen. Often, this involved the school hiring a photographer with a special kind of tripod to shoot photographs of plates of pages from the professors' own books. Those slides then became part of the a special library called the Visual Resource Collection: a place about the size of a small post office lobby, with tall, blondwood cabinets full of decades and decades' worth of slides. The older ones were enclosed in paired squares of glass, held together with an edging of papery masking tape, and almost guaranteed to gum up the newer slide projectors. The newer ones were in clean, snap-together plastic mounts.

I learned (and felt very proprietary about) the cataloging system for the slides. By the time I graduated, I knew all its bizarre quirks-- like where to find pictures of Han Dynasty hair ornaments; or 19th century Turkish ceramics, or early 20th century Irish newspaper cartoons. I also came to love the slide-binding process itself: You sat at a light table, and flicked the dust off of squares of film with a brush impregnated with two little two little chunks of polonium beneath a few squares of metal mesh. Then you masked out the blank parts of the slide with narrow strips of silver tape that you trimmed with an Exacto knife. It was a delicate and precise process, but it wasn't especially difficult; and on a stressful, awful days, it made me feel calm, relaxed, and wonderfully civilized. The years I was 19 and 20, I almost always had a few bits of slide tape stuck to me somewhere, either glittering in the folds of my long, gothy-hippie skirts, or caught in my hair.

Kodak stopped making slide carousels in 2004. I don't know how many universities still have slide libraries, but I can't image that they're terribly common anymore. PowerPoint, Google Images, and the like have made them obsolete. Still, even though that kind of work hasn't been my livelihood in almost twenty years, I'm still sad to know that it's now almost, if not completely, gone.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:53 AM on March 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


I should add that there's an upside to having the rug pulled out from under your feet, and it's that it wakes you up in a very real and lasting way. Some of the traces of watching my old line of work dry up linger as little quirks and complexes, like my obsessive and cumbersome overlapping redundancy when I'm backing up 300 gigs of mp3s, or the fact that I leave flash drives containing backups of my writing and music at friends' houses around the country, just in case.

Other leftovers, though, are more useful. I don't take even well-established support systems for granted anymore, and I think in longer terms. What happens when the last CD-ROM drive stops working? All that perfectly-preserved data on the disks with the most archival dye substrate won't do you a bit of good when you don't have a system to read that data.

I'm a musician, among my other distractions, and my field of fascination has been in sampling and using sampled sound to build new things, but my primary instruments, the Ensoniq EPS and the e-Mu Emulator IV, were built by companies that no longer exist. The EPS depends on a custom-made vacuum fluorescent display, without which you can't actually use the machine, and the Emulator stores its data on a SCSI hard drive. Both use a specific floppy drive to boot and restore data. What happens when the last one of those parts fails? I'm a virtuoso sampler programmer, particularly on the quirks of those machines, but when the platforms themselves die, and the builders go, those particular adaptations become worthless.

You start to think in different terms. How long will an electrolytic capacitor last? Does something use gee-whiz custom-designed chips, or discrete electronic components? Custom chips are brilliant, but if they fail after the manufacturer has disappeared, they kill what they once made brilliant by association.

You start thinking in terms of generalized platforms, where things exist in software, modeling themselves in languages that are inherently platform-agnostic. It's a thought process that's useful, both in practical terms and to the end of keeping you awake and alert, and it's what you're left with when you stop feeling bitter to have been left behind. The ground under your feet isn't fixed and eternal. Rivers change course—sometimes over eons, sometimes in the course of a single flood.

We're bred to fear uncertainty these days, perhaps more than ever, and trained at earlier and earlier ages to be razor-sharp specialists, the tip-top in our field, and so we spurn the generalist as a flake, a wishy-washy drifter, and a hippie throwback. When the economy crashed, I think it woke a lot of people up—making them wonder if they could consider something else. For a lot of people, that's a source of fear and tremendous anxiety, but it should also be a lesson, to pay attention to what things are and to not think of things that are impermanent as if they're real, solid, and eternal. Being forced to think on one's feet doesn't have to be a bad thing.

For me, the pace of change was so breathlessly, terrifyingly fast that I had to catch myself before I really turned into an old crank, and my first and possibly last tattoo is a reminder of the nature of the world that I keep as a signpost to stop myself from feeling like things are hopeless—a little band of text around my ankle quotes Ovid's line from Metamorphoses:

OMNIA MUTANTUR - NIHIL INTERIT

Everything changes - nothing perishes. It shapes the way you see things, and shapes what's important. Right now, I'm working as a facility manager in a hundred year-old clock tower full of working studios for artists. Not long ago, I was managing the facility in a museum for untrained artists, after working as engineer on a massive mosaic project, and before that, I was building kitchens, and before that, I was scanning microfilm, and before that…and so on, all the way back. Tomorrow, I might have to be something else.

Do we lose virtuosity this way? Shouldn't we strive to pick one thing in the world and be as good at it as anyone can be? I know I'm a virtuoso planetary camera operator, a virtuoso sampler modulation matrix programmer, and a whiz-kid typewriter repairman, but these things come and go. The uncertainty of when they'll go makes me have to stay awake and alert, always learning new skills and looking in new directions.

I am sad that I can't do what I learned to do, sitting next to my father in a living room a long time ago, because I did it well, and I made a product that was fine and sincere, and which hasn't really had a worthy successor. I feel a lot of nostalgia for days gone by and the hulking old crinkle-painted machines I used, but when I stop and think about things, I'm actually pretty happy doing what I'm doing now, and I'm optimistic that I'll be doing something cool in my next career. Maybe it'll be something more me, more loud and creative, or maybe it'll be something quiet and seemingly dull, where I can focus and work in properly-satisfying detail.

Anything could happen.

So I have this old synthesizer, a Roland Juno 6. It's very old, for an electronic thing, and limited. It can't store programs, so the position of the switches and sliders are what they are in the moment, and that's it. One day, something in it will fail and it just won't work anymore. A capacitor will burst its casing and corrode the circuits, or key contacts will break, or something else that I don't have the industrial capacity to build myself will wear out, and that will be it.

I could fear that moment, and obsess over it, and let that anxiety ruin my love of the instrument, or—

I could just sit here, right here, in this moment, and play and explore and experiment. I could take the time to master the little oddities of the low frequency oscillator and the scratchy cutoff slider on the filter, knowing full well this time that I'm working at a task that cannot be prolonged endlessly into the future, and just make some music for myself and to share with anyone who's interested.

It's scary to know how close the end of our careers could be, but it's good, too, and reminds us to celebrate all of this while we can and to stay on our feet, working to preserve what's worth keeping even as we're open and curious about what's next.
posted by sonascope at 4:08 AM on March 6, 2010 [31 favorites]


I deliberately chose an ancient, obsolete technology for my artworks, and it has some interesting twists and turns around newly obsolete technology. I may be one of the last practitioners of large format Gum Bichromate color photographic printing. It was the first archival photography process, but was largely abandoned sometime around the 1870s, due to technical problems with the medium. I was taught this process in my very first photography class in art school in 1976, they thought it was important to teach photography by making students coat their own photo papers with handmade emulsions, and to contact print from negatives in direct sunlight. Most students became immediately frustrated with the process, noticing the reasons it was abandoned: many prints would fail, they'd have bubbles in the pigment leaving holes in the image, and the prints themselves had extremely low contrast. Sometimes you'd have to print the image repeatedly to build up a decent contrast, and an error in any one of the layers meant the print was ruined. This made the peak of the medium, full color photography, almost impossible, as it was too inaccurate for precise color.
But some artists like Gum Printing, it is now known as an "alternative process" and was prized for its ability to print with any watercolor pigment. I worked for years refining the technique, my specialty is metallic pigments, I make prints with copper, silver, and gold reflective pigments, they are quite amazing. As I worked with these processes, I made some technical refinements of my own, fixing some of the problems with the technique. But my career was in digital prepress, my knowledge of printing and photography made it easy to know how programs like Photoshop would work on the printing press. I worked as a color separator in some of the top digital shops in LA and SF. One day I was showing a client some of my abstract metallic Gum prints, and he stunned me, he said, "hey Charlie, you work all day making color separation negatives for high end imagesetters, did it ever occur to you to use them for your own work, in full color?" I had one of those "forehead-slapping moments," it really was staring me in the face all day and I never saw it. So I started working on full color printing. I invented some new techniques to produce imagesetter negatives that absolutely fixed all the most difficult problems of the medium and I could now make very large format, full color Gum prints with excellent color accuracy. I've only heard of one other photographer figuring out how to do this, and his technique was completely analog, and much more difficult. So I may be one of the best, and last practitioners of a lost art.
But there were still problems. Making large negatives on an imagesetter costs a lot of money. I made one color 11x14 print, it took 4 negatives at costing a total of $140. The chemicals cost under $5 per print, and the paper about the same. It costs me about $150 to make a print, my best print took 18 layers, and about 30 hours of work over 7 days, and that doesn't include the one print that failed, taking a similar amount of time and effort. So I was finally ready to sell my work, it could now be (mostly) repeatably produced and I thought it was commercially viable. But the gallery offered to sell my prints for $250, with their gallery commission of 55%, I'd make $112.50, less than the cost of the negatives. I might as well pay them $37.50 to sell each print. I declined. The gallery said, "couldn't you make up the costs with mass production, like maybe make 5x7 greeting cards?" No, that would just drive the labor costs higher. And then they really shocked me, they said they loved my Iris inkjet proofs of the images, could they sell those? I protested, Iris inkjet prints are not archival. And that was my whole point, I was creating archival fine art prints that are known to last at least 150 years, since the original 1850s prints were still in perfect condition. Gum prints would probably last hundreds of years if they were printed on archival paper. And now, just as I reached the peak of development of my artform, it was undermined by cheap, non-archival inkjet printing that cost almost nothing to make. And there still isn't any archival inkjet medium, not by the fine art standards that I learned in art school.
I continued to dabble in the process, making refinements, but recently there were two developments that almost eliminated the medium entirely. First, the chemicals were so hazardous, they were now controlled by the ATF and Homeland Security, you must register with the Feds when you buy the chems, knowing they might search your records (and your studio) if they suspect a chemical attack. I asked my supplier how often the Feds inspect their records, they said, "oh not often, only 3 or 4 times in the last 2 years." So not many photographers want to be treated as a terrorist. And now we have a more modern responsibility to neutralize these chemicals after use, to reduce their impact on the environment.
Ah, but there was one last tech problem. Imagesetters became almost completely obsolete. I could no longer find shops to produce my large negatives, they all converted to direct-to-press printing, eliminating the expensive negatives. The remaining shops charged even more for negs, I was priced out of business.
But recently I worked with a new client, one of their productions is silk screen stencils, my clients and I made plenty of those on imagesetters, back in the day. And I was astonished to discover they were producing the negatives on clear film using inkjet printers! I had tried this technique myself, but abandoned it since it couldn't produce negatives opaque enough to print. But this problem was solved with special software that would put down 800% black ink. Oh the horror, an inkjet was never supposed to put down more than about 360% of CMYK ink or the paper would dissolve, or the ink would bead up on the films. But these problems were all solved now. And now I can produce a negative for about $1.. IF I have an $800 inkjet printer and the $900 software for the special printing. I had hoped to work with that client long enough to sneak through a few negatives for my own work, but that gig is now over. So now I have to raise about $1700 to do my printing, and bring all my techniques to the culmination of my art career. I just discovered this new inkjet negative thing a few weeks ago, so I'm trying to get a State Arts Council grant, it shouldn't be hard to get a grant as one of the last artists using a "lost art."
But alas, the local photography galleries are still focused on selling inkjet prints, they say the top end for photo prints is still about $250, so nobody can afford to do real fine art photographic prints like Cibachromes or C Prints, it's all inkjets now. And my labor costs are still so high that my gum prints still might not be profitable. I hear that "alt process" galleries get higher prices for these prints, a large format color gum print should sell for a minimum of $1500. But I've never found a gallery like that, let alone one interested in my work.
I recently bumped into my old professor who taught me gum printing, oh so long ago. I thanked him for teaching me the process that became my life's work. He asked me if people liked my work and if I'm selling any. I said that my work was severely abstract so people were, at best, indifferent to it, at worst, actively hated it, and certainly nobody ever expressed any interest in buying it. His eyes lit up, he extended his hand and gave me a brisk handshake, and said, "Congratulations! You are an Artist!"
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:27 AM on March 6, 2010 [22 favorites]


Lector. Hannibal Lector.
posted by bwg at 6:37 AM on March 6, 2010


Thanks for this; the lamplighter reminds me of a song I often heard growing up as sung by Jim Reeves, The Old Lamplighter, music by Nat Simon, lyrics by Charles Tobias.

He made the night a little brighter
Wherever he would go
The old lamplighter
Of long, long ago
His snowy hair was so much whiter
Beneath the candle glow
The old lamplighter
Of long, long ago

You'd hear the patter of his feet
As he came toddling down the street
His smile would cheer a lonely heart you see
If there were sweethearts in the park
He'd pass a lamp and leave it dark
Remembering the days that used to be
For he recalled when things were new
He loved someone who loved him too
Who walks with him alone in memories

He made the night a little brighter
Wherever he would go
The old lamplighter
Of long, long ago
His snowy hair was so much whiter
Beneath the candle glow
The old lamplighter
Of long, long ago

Now if you look up in the sky
You'll understand the reason why
The little stars at night are all aglow
He turns them on when night is near
He turns them off when dawn is here
The little man we left so long ago
He made the night a little brighter
Wherever he would go
The old lamplighter of long, long ago
posted by bwg at 6:41 AM on March 6, 2010


Oops, I may have mistaken Jim Reeves for the Browns, but no matter, the song is what's important.
posted by bwg at 6:45 AM on March 6, 2010


I bartend parties & events @ the Regency Ballroom and the old-school elevator there still has an operator on the switch. And no, you can't do it yourself. You'll slam the dang car all the way down to the basement and short the thing out.

It is kinda cool how they make the last fiddly adjustments while bringing the car exactly to floor level, making those cool electro-clanky sounds. And I'm rolling carts laden with booze and tables on and off that car, so they have to get it perfectly level for me.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:59 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


palmcorder_yajna: A couple of summers ago I had an unpaid internship with my university's Visual Resources Collection as part of my library schoolwork. Although the general trend was towards digitization and most of my work was digital filing (adding and verifying metadata for previously scanned images, etc), slides were still a big part of the collection. We had a room of slides just like the one you described, and I went in there a few times to return slides that had been recently digitized or which a professor had borrowed for a class.

I think the ultimate goal is to have a complete digital database of the entire 300,000 image collection and digitize those images that can be digitized (right now, a little over a fifth of the collection has been digitized and put online), but the slides aren't going anywhere even if people use them less and less. We still had lantern slides! (50,000 of them according to the website.)

So, you know, that's what's going on twenty years later, at least at my VRC.
posted by bettafish at 10:56 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Through the 1980s, many long-distance phone calls were routed through operators. There were a limited number of lines or circuits for long-distance locations. If all circuits were busy, operators would take down the number of the caller and ring him back when a circuit was available.

In the 80s? Really? We made calls overseas all the time, and the only time we talked to an operator was...never.
Does 0 still get you a live person or is it all computerized now?
posted by madajb at 1:29 PM on March 6, 2010


I do wish someone would start a milkman business around here.
Maybe with one of those three-wheeled trucks.
posted by madajb at 1:30 PM on March 6, 2010


Icemen are making a comeback because of yuppie hippies.
posted by broken wheelchair at 5:38 PM on March 6, 2010


I meant Milkmen.
posted by broken wheelchair at 5:39 PM on March 6, 2010


Does 0 still get you a live person or is it all computerized now?

0 still gets you a live person, but it's more geared towards customer service issues instead of actually connecting calls for you.
posted by zachlipton at 7:18 PM on March 6, 2010


Wow. When I think of obsolete jobs, I think of jobs like hog reeve, fence viewer, ......


Actually, I have had a couple of cases in the last 10 years where I've had to pull the fence viewers out of hibernation to settle disputes between adjoining landowners out here on the Iowa prairie. Iowa, like many states, still has the fence viewer statutes on the books. It's kind of fun to watch this process work because it's an entirely local way of resolving disputes by referring the problem to a small group of actual people who go out, look at the property, actually talk to the involved parties, and then make a decision that's binding on the two landowners.
posted by webhund at 9:57 PM on March 6, 2010


Fence viewers? Hell, here in Iowa we still have people working as "crowing counters" to take the annual pheasant census. Various experimental technologies have been tried, but the best method is still listening by ear.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:35 PM on March 6, 2010


I meant Milkmen.

Milkmen never went away. Seriously: Get up early enough, you'll see them in any medium-sized suburb.

I took a letterpress course a few years ago. I loved it. Like, loved it, loved it. Despite being hunched over, squinting to see eight point lead type in dim lighting in a dusty basement of a hundred-year-old building, it gave me more satisfaction than any other menial task ever could. It's really, really disheartening to know that fifty years ago, I'd've been able to walk to any newspaper or print shop and be given a (really terribly low-paying) job setting type, just like that. Now, not so much. Printer's Devil is a really kick-ass job title, too. Sigh.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:01 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great thread. As with just about everyone else, I'm quite intrigued by the job of a lector, and note that Yale was advertising for a lector in Sanskrit as recently as in 2008.

Of course, it's probably a Yale-equivalent for the British-style Reader, but still, it's amusing to think that somewhere in Yale, there's a room full of cigar-makers rolling cigars while listening to a lector narrate Sanskrit translations of, I don't know, Krugman's blog-posts.
posted by the cydonian at 8:44 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have stripped negs and once could unjam a full-size Linotype-Hell imagesetter's film cassette in the dark by feel alone. My Dad *still* has a telex in his office (I always loved the container of punched-out dots!) and two IBM Selectric typewriters for his carbonless forms. Some things have died out and other will soon.

Yesterday my second-grader was working on a poster project, gluing down pictures of penguins and writing captions beneath them. He was frustrated by the glue-soaked papers curling up, and I set coffee mugs on everything to weigh them down. As I started showing him how to go easy on the glue and smooth down the pictures, I caught myself bloviating about paste-up boards and blue pencils and attacking all the boards with a roller before taking them to the printer and... Oh, it was shameful.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:36 AM on March 8, 2010


I meant Milkmen.

Milkmen never went away.


Totally man, they just did some solo stuff and then their bass player committed suicide. But like Broken Wheelchair said, thanks to yuppie hippies they are making a comeback.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:52 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


have stripped negs and once could unjam a full-size Linotype-Hell imagesetter's film cassette in the dark by feel alone.

For all of my whining about the passing of the printing industry, I don't miss those days one bit. Those chemicals stank to high heaven and probably shortened my life. Thanks, non-union shop!

That said, I am inordinately proud of the time I built one functioning film processor out of two broken Agfas.
posted by lekvar at 12:47 PM on March 8, 2010


wenstevedt, watch out for that container of "punched out dots" from the paper tape of the telex machine. I once used a tiny pinch of dots as confetti, and a very cranky CompSci professor read me the riot act and banned me for life from the Telex terminal room at my university. He told me that the dots are very hazardous to use as confetti. If one dot gets in your eye, it will bond to your eyeball, requiring a trip to the emergency room to have it removed.
Yeah, there are some good things about certain technologies being abandoned.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:46 PM on March 8, 2010


Housing construction isn't obsolete, but the tools have changed and it seems like the hammer, the iconic tool of the construction worker, is getting left behind.
When I was in high school I worked as a framer, building wood-frame houses (and my new high school) and there was something REALLY satisfying about driving nails.

I started out with a 16oz all-purpose hammer, and once I got strong enough graduated to a 20oz Estwing checker-face framing hammer. I could drive an 20-penny nail with 2 strokes; one to set and one to finish and it was SO fun.

I get that pneumatic drivers are way more efficient but I'm a little bummed that today's teenage builders are missing out on the joy and satisfaction of driving nails by hand.

(Our first kid arrives in June, and I'll make sure s/he gets a chance to try framing something up by hand.)
posted by dolface at 6:14 PM on March 9, 2010


Yea the sound of hammers has been pretty rare at construction job sites for twenty years or so. Mostly you just hear air-compressors or the thwack of gas powered nail guns.
posted by octothorpe at 4:50 AM on March 10, 2010


My father was a draftsman. In college, my engineering program had me taking paper-and-pencil drafting one year. The next semester, that course was gone, and I took a CAD course. I haven't seen a drafting machine in years, but I still have my machine rulers (and my dad's) and all manner of compasses, triangles, erasing shields, and French curves. I keep them in a different place from my machinist tools.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:31 AM on March 10, 2010


Eventually the only jobs left will be repairing the automated processes and dreaming what to build next.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 4:45 AM on March 11, 2010


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