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)

Bonus: 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)

 

Do you know of worse jobs society used to make children do? That’s a little questionable, but hit us up on Facebook or Twitter to shoot over some ideas.


Credits

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

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Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Coming from the most un-handy of academic families, Andrew brings his love of history to the world of web writing. Rumours suggest he was born quoting Monty Python in a tweed jacket, but this remains unproven.