The 15 Worst Jobs Kids Used to Do

Most adults today have a story about a horrible job they held as a kid, but as bad as they thought it might have been the odds are overwhelming it wasn't nearly as awful (or lethal) as what children were expected to do in the past.

1. Castrato

farinelli
Portrait of Carlo María Broschi aka Farinelli, the most famous and successful Castrato. Public Domain.

Medieval Europe prized its choir singers, and society knew of only one way to give grown men the voices of angels.

They chopped their pre-pubescent balls off, plain and simple. We’ll wait for the penny to drop, because nothing else would if this were still allowed today.

Far from a symbolic vow of chastity, this was just intended to cut off the testosterone. Boys (most under the age of twelve and usually from poorer families hoping to benefit financially from the popularity of castrati in the 1500s) retained their high-pitched voices this way, and it also kept a castrati’s bones malleable enough as they grew into adulthood to accommodate their giant, powerful lungs.

On the bright side, they didn’t have to worry about fathering children if things got carried away. (Source: Gizmodo)

2. Loblolly

Surgery on a warship. Image: Public Domain

What’s worse than being operated on by primitive surgeons on a boat, in the middle of the ocean and without taking anesthesia? Very few things, as it happens. However, we’re guessing that being the child who assisted the operating surgeon probably wasn’t a cakewalk, either.

Most loblolly boys spent their time serving food to the sick, but they also had to restrain patients during surgery, get rid of limbs after amputation, empty toilets, and clean used medical instruments.

As you might have already realized from reading another story on this site your first McJob doesn’t look so bad in comparison, does it? (Source: World Wide Words)

3. Chimney Sweepers

A Swedish chimney sweeper boy. Public Domain / Nordiska museet

The poster child for unsafe jobs (couldn’t resist), chimney sweepers who came to harm on the job sparked many of the child labor laws we take for granted today.

The job gained particular notoriety during the Industrial Revolution, when society’s laws hadn’t caught up to the rapid development of manufacturing and commerce.

Why have children clean chimneys if it was so unsafe? They were the only ones small enough to fit in them. Just imagine what kind of illnesses and respiratory issues you would develop by working inside a giant, industrial chimney all day, every day… if you survived. (Source: Victorian Era)

4. Rat Catchers

Image: Topical Press Agency

Rats can save lives when trained properly, but they tended to spread disease in highly urban areas. Add the rising amount of waste from said urban areas, and you’ve got a score multiplier for mortality. Providing breeding grounds for rats created a job market for catching them, naturally.

In fact, Queen Victoria even had her own Royal Rat Catcher in Buckingham Palace by the name of Jack Black (no relation… probably).

Of course the thought of handling potentially disease-ridden rats sounds unpleasant, but for many youth in Victorian times (in this profession’s case usually older and in their mid-to-late teens) it was still better than life in a coal mine or sweeping chimneys.

The best rat catchers didn’t just exterminate them. They captured the live rats for use in competitions in which terriers were trained to kill them all as quickly as possible. An entire gambling industry spawned around the “sport.” (Source: History House)

5. Crossing Sweepers

Photograph of a Crossing Sweeper, holding broom in right hand,” by RL Sirus, 1884. Courtesy of UK National Archives

Another staple career for the adolescent in Victorian England, crossing cleaners tidied up public crossings in the hopes of receiving a tip from well-to-do citizens. What’s so bad about sweeping up a crosswalk?

Remember that this was an era before roads had proper lanes (or rules at all), which meant there was no safe time between traffic lights to clean.

Automobiles hadn’t become commercially widespread either, so you could expect to find a lot of horse droppings scattered about. You might have even found a dead horse lying around. Those kids probably had no idea how to move those out of the way, either. (Source: Jane Austen’s World)

6. Matchstick Dippers

Image source: rebelcircus.com

Letting children work with hazardous materials such as, say, open flame, would be irresponsible. Employing young children to work around white phosphorous needed to create matches was worse, and here’s why: prolonged exposure causes “phosphorous necrosis of the jaw.”

It sounds bad because it is bad. The condition interfered with bone development in children, eventually detaching the bottom half of the jaw from the rest of the face.

Red phosphorous came to replace white phosphorous in matchstick production in the late 1880s because it was safer, but only after a very public strike shed light on the girls losing half of their faces. (Source: British Dental JournalMental Floss)

7. Mule (Mill) Scavenger

Image: Department of Commerce and Labor. Children’s Bureau. (1912 – 1913), Public Domain.

Textile mills were dangerous in the early Industrial Revolution (beginning in the second half of the 1700s). The machines, referred to as mules, needed to be cleaned and cleared often—they weren’t as advanced as 20th-century equipment.

Yet “time is money,” so textile mills did not stop for the sake of kids who had to clean them. Like chimney sweepers, kids ended up filling this role because they were the only ones small enough to get under the machines’ cramped crawl spaces to gather refuse.

“Crawlspace” might be an exaggeration. These kids had to shuffle while prone with moving machinery just inches above their heads. Let’s not think about what happened if the mule scavengers weren’t quick enough. (Source: Ancestry)

8. Powder Monkeys

Image source: rebelcircus.com

They say that people die in war from disease and famine more than actual fighting. Tell that to the children who packed gunpowder into canons in the midst of battle. The adult sailors had more important things to do, like aiming the canons and directing the ship.

Apparently, handling explosive powder wasn’t considered a “big boy job,” so crews just left the proverbial interns to do it. By interns, we mean indentured servants. In fairness, those who survived rose through the ranks in the Navy. We don’t want to blow anything out of proportion. (Source: The Telegraph)

9. Pin Setters

Image by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1874-1940. United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

Do you know the difference between a pediatrician and a podiatrist? One specializes in children’s medicine, and the other specializes in foot care. You might have needed both on-call for the bowling alleys of old. Everyone loves a good game of bowling, but maybe not the kids expected to stand at the end of every lane.

We designed bowling balls to be heavy to maintain momentum, but setting pins back wasn’t always automated (or safe). Someone had to stand there to put them back, simultaneously dodging heavy objects flying at them.

Then there were the drunk bowlers who just tried aiming at the kids for entertainment. Fun, right? (Source: CBC Kids)

10. Groom of the Stool

When we think of the word “stool,” it conjures up two main images: one of a sort of chair you sit on, and the other of poop. It seems fitting that the two meanings come from the same thing. In this case, it was a portable potty that used to be carried around by a very special courtier and used exclusively by the King of England. And yes, one can safely assume this is where the dual meaning of the word “throne” came into play as well.

The Groom of the Stool was in charge of the King’s bowel movements, from start to finish. Keeping track of what went into the King would help predict when and where it would ultimately come out again, and they’d better have that royal stool ready for the royal stool or else.

As nasty as all this sounds, it was worse. The job was more than just keeping the throne pristine and handy, it involved helping the King with his movements. Your imagination here is likely still not as bad as the real thing. Those Kings were not healthy men.

The job was created by Henry VIII, and continued to be an actual role up until the start of the 20th century when Edward VII decided he was quite capable of wiping the royal crapper all by himself. Ah, is there anything the modern era can’t do!

So yes, it was a nasty job, but it was also a pretty coveted one. Grooms of the Stool were usually young noblemen. One of the nine lucky gentlemen who got to look after George III’s interesting shit was young John Stuart, who eventually became the Prime Minister. But we could’ve told you that experience in mopping up the King’s shit was excellent training for leading His Majesty’s government. (Source: Historic UK)

11. Toshers and Mudlarks

source: spitalfieldslife.com/

The sewers of London often caught more than just the cumulative crap of the city, from time to time some things of real value found their way underground. It was the job of the Tosher to wade around in the filth to find whatever buried treasures they could potentially sell. Tosher was literally a crappy job, but it was also one that was mostly done by grownups. The kids had it worse. They got to be Mudlarks.

As the name implies, a Mudlark worked in mud: specifically, the mud exposed along the banks of the River Thames during low tide. When the tide receded, the boys and girls who worked as Mudlarks would roll up their raggedy pantlegs and squelch into the mud to search for…well, anything.

The most common treasure was stuff that fell or was thrown off of ships, such as pieces of iron, lengths of rope, bits of canvas, or chunks of fat cast off by ships’ cooks. In bulk, this detritus could fetch enough to live on, though not well.

The days were long and hard. Up at dawn, spend every daylight second of low tide in the mud, then try like hell to get out before high tide comes back in and drowns you or washes you away. Winter work days were shorter, but a lot colder. You had to be a good swimmer. Broken glass was a real threat. Corpses were common. And it was illegal, so the police were prone to random raids.

And just because Mudlarks were in the river and not the sewer, don’t think they avoided having to wade through the human waste like the Toshers did. Where do you think those sewers emptied into? (Source: Spital Fields Life)

12. Squire

In Medieval times, a knight’s suit of armour was designed for one purpose: to keep the noble warrior alive against an onslaught of deadly objects.

The armour was comprised of dozens of different bits of padding and chainmail and hard metal pieces, all layered over one another and strapped together over the entire body so that whether the deadly objects were sharp pointy things or heavy bashing things, there was a chance of getting hit by some and still making it off the battlefield relatively unscathed. Some of the time, these suits of armour actually worked as advertised.

But all this protection came at a cost. They were heavy, dead heavy, and they were awkward to move around in. You’d better hope it protected you in battle, because forget about trying to run away — you couldn’t move your legs fast enough. They were stiflingly hot, but forget about going for a cooling dip in the lake either — over 50 pounds of metal is not recommended swimwear. If you had an itch, there was no way to scratch it.

No, medieval suits of armour were not designed for ease of use. It took a team much like a Nascar pit crew just to get you into and out of the thing. This was the job of the Squire, young boys whose job was to help the knight don and doff the armour, and keep it all in working order for the next fight.

Ok, you’re thinking this doesn’t sound so bad. But consider: where does the knight go to the bathroom? What if the battle was a particularly nasty one, and the poor knight got so scared that he soiled himself? Oh my. Pity the Squire whose job it was to clean out the codpiece.

But the good news is that being a Squire was the final stage of apprenticeship towards becoming a knight yourself. Then you can have some other boy scrub the poop out your armour. Chivalry definitely is not dead. (Source: Medieval Chronicles)

13. Coal Miners

Image Source: LEWIS HINE/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Everybody knows that coal mining is not a fun job. It’s dirty, it’s hard, it’s dangerous, and hey: black lung. Yet coal is what fueled the industrial revolution, and someone had to get that stuff out of the ground. And because it was mined, and mines often have lots of little spaces to get into, it helped to have lots of little people who could squeeze into those little spaces.

You know, like kids.

In the early 1900’s — yes, the 20th century, go modern age! — there was an estimated 2 million children working industrial jobs. Not only were they great at little fiddly work, but you didn’t have to pay them as much! Win!

Around that time, the National Child Labor Committee was formed to look into just how bad it was. They went around and investigated, talked to a lot of kids, took a lot of pictures, then came back and revealed that things were pretty darned bad. Long hours. Hard work. Lots of accidents. Very little pay. And yeah, black lung.

It was the coal miners that really did it. One investigator for the NCLC took a lot of photos of children in coal mines, and more than perhaps anything else it was these images that helped establish the first child labor laws in the US. (Source: Mashable.)

14. Toad-Eater

We’ve all heard of the toady, the fawning and obsequious sycophant, but who knew the term came from what was once a pretty awful kid’s job?

Back in the day, the travelling con-man would go from town to town selling snake-oil remedies, an absolutely different job than today’s politician, no matter how much the description seems the same. These doctors of wondrous medicines would need to put on a pretty good show to convince people to buy their goods, and part of the routine would involve demonstrations of the amazing curative properties of the various powders and elixirs.

Working alongside the quacks would be a young assistant to help with the demonstration. These poor wretches would be forced to do whatever the doctor ordered, which often involved consuming something poisonous so that they could be cured. But where is the spectacle in just drinking poison? How could the audience be sure it was poison in the first place?

Ah ha. What they needed was something everybody knew was poisonous. The grosser the better. This was a show, after all. And that is how the servile assistants came to start eating toads, because everybody back then knew that icky warty toads were poisonous. So the kid would eat the toad, display the unmistakable signs of impending death, then experience a miraculous cure under the ministries of the doctor. Cue awed gasps and increased sales. Hence, the Toad-Eaters.

Keep in mind that even if the toad isn’t exactly poisonous, it does secrete a pretty vile substance from its skin when threatened in order to dissuade bigger animals from eating it. Like, say, young humans. It was a crappy job to be sure.

Over time, the toad-eater was used to refer to anyone who cowed to a superior, and the term was shortened to toady. Which, interestingly, is what today’s politicians seem to enjoy surrounding themselves with. Maybe the jobs aren’t so different after all. (Source: World Wide Words)

15. Vomit Collector

While researching this story, we came across the role of Vomit Collector. Surely this would qualify as one of the worst jobs ever. Unfortunately, it’s not something kids ever really did, but is just a misunderstanding.

Let’s go back to Roman times. The Romans liked their excesses, yes they did. Their appetite for feasts that went on all night is legendary, but the truth is that Romans never did purge and keep on going like toga-draped fratboys.

Ok, the philosopher and statesman Seneca did write that “When we recline at a banquet, one [slave] wipes up the spittle; another, situated beneath, collects the leavings of the drunks.”

But Seneca’s leavings were likely just innocent olive pits and chicken bones, and one can safely assume that there was probably no more upchuck dribbling down the sides of the divans back then than there is at the average Thanksgiving dinner in New Brunswick. Mind you, Spittle Wiper probably merits a worst job heading all its own.

Alongside the ambiguous details of Seneca’s description of a Roman party, this vomitous misconception probably stems from the Roman architectural feature called the Vomitorium. While many believe that this was a special room for Roman puke, the infamous Vomitoria were, in fact, the passageways leading out of ampitheaters that “disgorged” spectators from the stands after an event. Disappointed? Me too.

Extra Bonus Fact: the vomit collector job does exist today, only it’s one usually filled by grownups. It’s a special sort of janitor who goes around underneath roller coasters and keeps things fresh after little Billy had one too many corndogs before taking on the biggest ride at the theme park. (Source: History.com)

Watch: The 8 Worst Jobs Kids Used to Do


Credits

Cover image: Lewis Hine (1874–1940), U.S. National Archives and Records Administration