Human alarm clocks? Egg flume operator? A look at some of the oddest historical jobs
Jobs evolve. Some disappear. Others are new. More occupations are added every day. Here are some of the most unusual jobs once found in Sheboygan County.
When the feather renovator came to town to make repairs, they stayed several days, making over and reconditioning feather beds and pillows. Initially, things were physically cleaned and rejuvenated on site. The feathers were boiled. New ticking was added. Later they were sent out to be laundered and cleaned. On June 27, 1840, Robert Lewis assigned U.S. Patent no. 1655 to New York City businessman John H. Stevens; this patent was for a “Feather Renovator,” or a “Machine for Cleaning and Drying Feathers,” described as the “arrangement and combination of feathers by steam and steam heat” and could be used for dressing over old feathers or preparing new feathers for any domestic purpose.”
Egg Flume Operator
Batavia had the only egg flume in the area. The springs on the Schneider property (now the corner of Highway 28 and Western Avenue) provided a body of water about six feet wide and four feet deep. In the summertime, fresh eggs were packed in wooden half barrels containing slaked lime. Then they were let down into the spring water to be preserved until later. In fall and winter, they were lifted out with a tackle attached to a track which ran into the building. They were then taken out of the lime, cleaned and packed into eighteen and thirty-six dozen crates. The crates were then sold in bigger cities. The excess water overflowed into a tank along the road. Rag and fish peddlers would stop there to water their horses. Excess water from the springs was diverted underneath the road and was used at the neighboring cheese factory for cleaning the floors.
Hay Press Operator
Before farm animals existed in any quantity in the county, early farmers simply piled the grass and hay they cut into stacks or moved it into the barn for use during the winter. A new invention of the mid-1800s was the mechanical hay press. The first presses were stationary units built into a barn, extending two to three stories into the hayloft. Generally, a team of horses was used to raise a press weight, which was then dropped to compress the hay. Other versions used a horse- or mule-powered sweep at the bottom of the press to turn a jackscrew or a geared press. The earliest hay press in the county was probably located at the Gay warehouse at the far east end of Pennsylvania Avenue, just up from Lake Michigan. The pressed hay was loaded onto ships and sold elsewhere. The bales weighed as much as 300 pounds and were secured by as many as five strands of wire or twine. Adell had a hay press owned by Jacob Hasner to process surplus hay and grass. This press was located adjacent to the railroad for easy shipping.
Cider Press operator
Large cider presses were once a common feature of farms throughout the state. Apples were considered a staple crop, and the production of apple cider for sale or conversion into vinegar or apple butter was vital to any local economy. Apples were first ground into pulp by a grinder. The resulting pulp was then wrapped in linen and placed in a wooden frame forming a “cheese,” after which it was pressed, the juice being collected and stored. The press relied on the sheer weight of a wooden pressing beam to squeeze the juice from the pulp. A large press could serve several nearby farms.
The rag-and-bone man was an itinerant who collected unwanted household items and sold them to merchants. Moving from farm to farm and throughout small town, the rag man scavenged materials and kept them in a small bag slung over his shoulder. It was a job performed by the poorest of the poor.
Cheese Bandage manufacturer
The Lumsden Bandage factory was founded by Alexander J. Lumsden about 1880. He was a mechanical genius and invented and patented an automatic cheese bandage cutter. Until this invention, cheese was covered and wrapped by hand with cheese cloth. It was a slow process and ready-cut wrappings speeded the process. The business closed in 1919 due to “unsettled market conditions and skyrocketing prices of cheese cloth.”
A lector was hired to read to large rooms of factory workers toiling at remedial tasks for hours on end. Lectors were sometimes even hired with pooled money from the factory workers themselves for their entertainment.
This job was the equivalent of a human alarm clock. Knocker-uppers were hired to make sure others would wake up for their jobs, using long sticks, pebbles and clubs to knock on windows.
Using long poles and/or ladders, lamplighters would light, douse, and refuel lamps. In Sheboygan Falls, John William was the man. He held office longer than any other. He was the town crier, lamp lighter and watchman. If you had something to publish, Uncle John would beat his drum and announce it on the street; if at night there was a fire, he would ring the fire bell.
Here’s a unique one. Universities would need cadavers for educational purposes and... well, getting them legally was a lot harder and more expensive. So, these guys collected dead bodies, sometimes legally, sometimes not so much.
It used to be that elevators needed someone to manually operate them, often using levers to help keep things moving as efficiently as possible, and to properly land the elevator cab on the correct floor. Even after buttons were created to help, an operator was still required, since the buttons didn’t allow for extra stops. Now, of course, push button operation makes this job unnecessary.
A gong farmer was the equivalent of today’s waste management personnel. They would clean one’s outhouse, removing the unpleasantries in the middle of the night. Once city sewer arrived, their job was done. Why the gong? They used one to warn people of their presence lest an accident occur.
Before photography was invented, portrait painting was the only means of creating images of family members and friends for posterity. But typically, only the wealthy could afford a professional portrait. For the less well-to-do, itinerant portrait painters, known as limners, traveled the countryside. The artist would travel around on horseback to country areas with canvases in his saddlebag. The paintings were already done of the torsos, and the artist would then only have to paint on the head and face. Limners accepted commissions to produce quick portraits or to decoratively paint a parlor or dining-room wall. Although some were quite skilled, the quality of limner paintings varies widely. This job ended with photography.
Oh, so many great occupations. Time passes quickly and so do jobs. We’ll revisit more at a later date.
Beth Dippel is executive director of the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center.