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4 crazy jobs kids used to do (long ago!)


Photo by 123RF/Igor Yaruta

It’s great being a kid today! Really, it is. You might think it’s a chore going to school every day for half to three quarters of the year. And then just as you finally get to enjoy summer, your parents stick you in summer camp or sign you up for sports. You’re thinking, “When will I ever get time to myself to just have some fun, play some video games… or just hang out in my room!”

You know, it wasn’t always this way. Less than a hundred years ago, kids didn’t go to school but went to work every day. And some of these jobs weren’t very glamorous - you didn’t get to be a video game tester, or a pie taster… Here are 4 crazy jobs from way back that you definitely wouldn’t want now.

Loblolly boy

kid dressed up like a pirate

Photo by 123RF/arturkurjan

A pirate’s life looks like a lot of fun in the movies, but if you were a kid in the 18th or 19th century, life on the sea wasn’t quite that adventurous. You could volunteer as a Loblolly Boy - the lowest position on the boat, but hey you have to start somewhere, right? It was part janitor, waiter and nurse on the ship. The cleaning up wasn’t so bad, but you also had to assist the ship’s surgeon. Blech!


Historical photo of a group of Nashville newsies, one as young as 7 years old.

A group of Nashville newsies. In middle of group is 7 year old Sam. He sells nights also. (Department of Commerce and Labor. Children’s Bureau. 1912-1913)

You might think that newspapers boys (or newsies) had a really musical life if you’ve ever seen the movie or the play, but that wasn’t the case. During the 1890s, if you were a young boy you could buy newspapers in bulk and then sell them on the street for a profit. Of course, you needed the best street corner to sell them, so newsies often fought each other for space. It wasn’t an easy life and strikes by the newsies eventually led to better working conditions.

Rat catcher

Historical drawing of Jack Black the rat catcherBack in the 19th century cities were really, really dirty. They didn’t have the great sanitation that we do today with weekly garbage and recycling pickup. There were mountains of garbage everywhere, which of course meant rats (and stink)! If you were a resourceful kid back then and had a rat-sniffing dog, you could make money catching the rats, which paid more than most jobs of the time. One young boy, Jack Black (no, not the actor), became famous for his rat catching skills and called himself Queen Victoria’s Royal Rat Catcher and Destroyer of Moles (but he never had the actual royal title).

“Jack Black, her majesty’s rat catcher, 1851”


Historical photo of bowling pinsetters

1:00 A.M. Pin boys working in Subway Bowling Alleys, 65 South St., B'klyn, N.Y. every night. (Library of Congress)

If you’ve ever been bowling, then you’ve probably watched in fascination as the machine at the end of the lane resets the pins for you after they’ve fallen down. Before these machines were invented, that job was done by teenage boys. It might sound like an easy enough job, but pinsetters had to watch out for pins flying their way from other lanes as well as bowling balls hitting them. You had to be really quick on your feet to stay safe!