Skull drudgery preserved for posterity on postcards


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Linen pressers in Amsterdam, circa 1910, no doubt stood over their boards for ten, twelve or more hours a day using heavy irons heated with coals or charcoal. The little white caps and white aprons can't conceal the burns and backaches.

Do you think your job is tough?

Try watching “The Worst Jobs in History,” a BBC series with host Tony Robinson actually doing the most unpleasant jobs from six historical periods. If the show doesn’t cycle your way in the near future, try the Internet to read about “professions” like mudlarking (sorting through debris at low tide), stone breaking or cesspool cleaning.

The Victorian period, 1832 to 1901, was the last one covered by the series, but postcards of the early 1900s show that horrible jobs were still plentiful. As a long-time collector of occupation cards, I had no trouble whatsoever putting together a large group showing jobs no one should have to do.

Personal fears make any list of worst jobs subjective. Fear of heights, confined spaces, reptiles, insects, or germs might make one job seem the worst of all, but some jobs were so awful that only the poor or desperate would be trapped into doing them. At the top of any list are jobs delegated to children.

Using young people as chimney sweeps or forcing them into the mines were horrendous practices. The latter appeared on postcards in the movement to ban child labor, but most “worst job” cards were made to show how people worldwide eked out a living. No doubt the travelers who bought them felt better about their own lifestyles when compared to the ways some people had to earn a living.

Mining is a dangerous, unpleasant job frequently pictured on old postcards. A hundred years later it’s still a hard way to make a living, and mine disasters are always a possibility. There are large numbers of early mining scenes available on postcards, but watch out for generic ones, photographs credited to several different mines. They’re worth only a fraction of what an identified mining scene should bring.

Growing and processing food has always been a laborious task. It’s hard to picture heat, dirt, wind, drought, sweat and pain on a postcard, but agricultural scenes of homesteaders and small farms sometimes bring alive the hardships.

Some food companies proudly distributed scenes of hygienic assembly lines but the slaughter of animals was also a postcard subject. In surfing Google’s 30.6 million references to worst jobs, I found that poultry processing is one of the worst modern jobs; it’s nasty, smelly and unpleasant.

People who scavenge for a living (no, not antiques dealers!) are particularly pathetic but less apt to be pictured on a postcard. Only investigative reporters will follow children who live off garbage dumps.

Compulsory work is also hard to find on postcards, especially that of prisoners in chain gangs or doing other hard labor. On the other hand, people in military service, whether volunteers or draftees, were often photographed, although the emphasis was on scenes that reflected well on the government. Some scenes of real-life military life certainly belong on the “worst job” list.

Drudgery was so much a part of a housewife’s life a hundred years ago that it took the suffrage movement to bring it to attention. Women’s worst jobs on postcards are harder to find than men’s, but some are equally unpleasant. Laundry workers, for example, were absolutely necessary in the days before washing machines. Imagine a hot, steamy hell that stinks of chemicals used in soaps and populate it with women working long, hard days.

A favorite postcard scene from some countries also shows washing clothes in rivers or streams, beating them on rocks to get them clean. Then there was ironing … .

Wherever there’s glitz and glamour in history, there’s a whole army of people slaving away at hard, dirty, dangerous, underpaid job. Look hard and you’ll find a lot of them on postcards.

Barbara Andrews has contributed postcard articles to Antique Trader for over 35 years. She’s an author of women’s fiction, working on her 50th book in partnership with her daughter.

More Images:

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This poor Egyptian boy on an early photo postcard is a street vendor selling water from a heavy leather bag. I've looked and looked but can't see a left arm. The stick suggests that he was crippled.
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A man who'd just gone down 2,800 feet "dressed like these miners" sent this card from Ironwood, Mich., in 1927. Is this a happy group of workers?
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An old Swiss woman carries what appears to be at least her own weight in sticks. Imagine the labor of picking up every one, not to mention carrying them from the woods to her home for firewood.
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These soldiers walk a corduroy road carrying packs and guns. The stooped man on the right and the sad looking one following him suggest how hard the military life was for them. The postcard was mailed from Finland using a 1941 stamp.

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