Think your job sucks? Well it does. But at least you (probably) won’t literally go blind from it.
Very few people wake up excited to go to work every day. Most people’s jobs are just places they wish they could escape five days a week. Even if you’re well paid, doing what you set out to do and have a fair degree of autonomy, you can’t help but think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. It’s just human nature. In the words of Mark Twain, “Work is whatever a body is obliged to do and play is whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
Of course, many modern jobs really do suck. Nobody grows up hoping they’ll be a McDonald’s server or even manager. Few people are happy working for some jerk everyday, or sitting in a cube in some gunmetal grey building waiting for their two weeks vacation a year. Yet no matter how bad the workday gets, you can take comfort in our modern society and the amenities it brings – even the worst McDonald’s employee doesn’t risk going blind by the nature of their work. The office drone doesn’t require physical beatings on a daily basis, and even the worst boss doesn’t make you literally wipe their butt.
In the past, when kings and queens ruled the nations, many jobs were outright horrific. The rich and powerful expected their due. Civilization required its creature comforts as well. The fruits of those comforts were always reaped from the sweat of the poor and servile. A body’s got to make a living, and the jobs on this list are the ones that are so repugnant, so miserable and so dangerous that they are some of history’s very worst jobs. Think you’ve got it bad? Think again.
Groom Of The Stool
Believe it or not, in Tudor times, the Groom Of The Stool was the most powerful position in England next to the king himself. And by next to I mean behind. Right behind. The royal behind. You see, the king could not be expected to poop unattended and was certainly not going to wipe his own butt. That was the groom’s job. And not just anybody could have this job you see – the king was thought to rule by holy mandate. His body was sacred – only noble could touch it at all. And to touch the king when he was at his most vulnerable, and in quite the vulnerable spot, was quite the luxury.
To wipe the kings regal bottom, you had to be a noble of high birth. So, to be clear, imagine you are born into wealth and privilege and power. When you come of age, after your youth in the lap of luxury and your adolescence adventuring and doing as you wish, you will be one of the ruling class. You will report to the palace and you discover that your job is to wipe poop from one of the fattest asses in the world. Good on you!
The groom of the stool was given the combined respect of a physician and lord. Why? He was ever at the king’s side and had, among other holes, the king’s ear. Yes, people envied the royal buttwiper. They wished to be him. They sucked up to him. Would you?
Next on the list is another shitty job. Gong means dung in – again – Tudor England. You see, London was a big city and its population was exploding. More people means more poop. More poop means the sewers are more important. And, unfortunately for the gong farmer, the sewers back then weren’t all they are today.
Now, very few people want to be a sewer worker. It’s a pretty secure job, I am sure, and in New York a veteran sewer worker makes over $100,000 a year. This was not the case in the day of the lowly gong farmer. They did make a living wage, but they were forced to work only overnight. They were not allowed to live in decent areas of the city and they very often found themselves neck deep in human excrement. The fumes were known to choke them to death. If your list of workplace hazards includes choking to death on human poop fumes, that has got to be one short list. Not much can follow that, really.
Nowadays the sewer is kind of not so horrible. There’s running water, lots of space. Not so in old London. There was no hydraulic system. Poop just… fell. And it got impacted. If it backed up in a house, the gong farmer would have to dig it out with a shovel, sometimes breaking down walls to get at it all.
Leech Gatherer (1885, France)
If you don’t know what leeches are, they are nature’s little vampire worms. Squishy little bastards that live in fetid water and cling to warm flesh to suck the blood right out of it. They attach with their ring shaped mouths full of razor-sharp teeth and cling on, drinking from the wound. And they were necessary for the medieval world.
Now, I’m not sure what else the French did with leeches (they do eat snails and frogs, after all), but along with the rest of the modern world, they used them for bloodletting and other medical applications. Yup, it was once medicine to attach a leech to you and let it suck your blood. No word on whether they also slapped patients with porcupines.
So, what is the best way to catch leeches? I would say get a male and a female and let nature take its course. But I am not a 19th century French entrepreneur, because if I were I would say, “Wade into the bog with my legs unprotected and entice those little fellas to bite me in their multitudes so I can pick them off and put them in a basket.” And people did this. And made their living like this.
Remember how I said the king was considered almost a god on earth? Well that went for his son, as well. A prince was a holy little thing and – like any child who has no consequences for his actions – he was very often a holy little terror. Free reign, infinite money, servants who will do anything he says? That’s a recipe for bad behavior in the most virtuous child, let alone the inbred son of a man who likely got his position by beheading his enemies.
But you could not slap, smack or toss the little bastard down a flight of stairs. How were you to discipline such a child? By beating his closest friend, of course. The whipping boy was the surrogate butt that got spanked, the surrogate back that got whipped. When the prince misbehaved, it was the whipping boy who took the punishment. The whipping boy was usually someone the prince grew up with and had a fondness for, and the idea was that he would empathically feel the boy’s pain. Makes sense for a young man who likely only had the one real friend.
Of course if you were the whipping boy and you annoyed the prince, all the little bugger had to do was smash a stained glass window and you’d get a flogging. Nice.
Industrial age soap makers had it rough. The original recipe for soap is just solidified, purified animal fat. Simple enough – wipe something with clean grease and it gets cleaner than if you just use water. Nowadays we have all sorts of different solutions to make soap from, and even getting the fat to make classic soap isn’t such an ordeal, but back in the day if you wanted animal fat to turn into tallow you had to get it right from an animal. And any animal would do.
You’re a soap maker and you walk by a dead dog on the side of the road? Pick it up – you have the makings of a nice bar of soap! You make it to your workshop, carcasses in hand, and add your lucky find to the pile of dead animals and their assorted stinking guts. Now it’s time to make the soap!
Making the soap itself wasn’t so bad if you didn’t mind the smell of boiled animal guts, the first stage in the process. It’s the second and third stages in the process – boiling guts, skimming off the fat and reboiling it until you have nice clean tallow. Then you had to boil that with lye. If you weren’t careful you’d burn off your skin. Get any in your face? Bam, you’re blind for life. Have a nice, long, successful career? You’d go blind slowly from the gasses coming off the soap pan.
Yes, success likely meant lifelong disability without compensation. Now get back to work.