Even today there are certain jobs that are a little more perilous than others – like flaming chainsaw jugglers, for example. But modern man has it good: we sit in air-conditioned offices, have specific agencies that protect employees from occupational hazards, and chemicals that drive you crazy/make you rectally bleed have all but been abolished, preventing grave personal injury. Just a century ago though, being blown up, dismembered or terminated due to death from internal organ slurrification were very common occupational hazards. Join me as we count our blessings to have been born a century after this, because these are jobs in history that would have killed you.
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Gilding is a process in which a deceiving bastard covers non-gold metals with gold (I’m sorry, I have a bit of a bone to pick with street corner jewelry vendors as every single ring I’ve ever bought from them has turned my fingers green before I even wore it). There are many different ways to execute the process of gilding but the most resilient and long-lasting is called “fire-gilding” which sounds pretty awesome. It immediately becomes less awesome when you find out that the process involves highly toxic mercury which you burn off (exposing you to deadly fumes) that then allows the gold to adhere to the intended surface. Most gilders seldom lived beyond 40 and even that short lifespan involved slow mental degeneration due to mercury poisoning. Initially, gilders would have hand tremors, and symptoms would then escalate to slurred speech, loss of coordination, depression, pathological shyness, and loosening of teeth. Oh, right – and death. Ironically, all of these symptoms were called “Hatter’s Disease” or “Hatter’s Syndrome” because of another occupation that was exposed to high levels of mercury:
Olden time folks really, really liked their mercury, even though it gave them, beyond the symptoms I mentioned above, uncontrollable shakes, distorted vision, confused speech, hallucination and psychosis. This occupation actually lent its name to mercury poisoning: “Hatter’s Disease”. Now, it would be a completely valid inquiry to ask “why mercury?”
Well, as much as olden people loved mercury, they also loved urine and they used it everywhere from washing and conditioning their clothes to treating leather to cleaning their house and making felt. I know that the previous sentence didn’t make much sense, but stick with it for a sec.
In France, people used urine to create felt but they noticed that one person’s felt actually turned out the best to which the French felt makers postulated pourquoi? The reason was that Monsieur Le Feltmaker was also a Le Freak and had syphilis – which was treated in Le Terrifying Olden days with the toxic cure-all: mercury. Now, which savant made the association between high quality felt, syphilis and mercury is beyond me, but imagine if he had access to today’s technology, he would be the Steve Jobs of… well… piss, poison and felt. Oh, about the hatters thing: they also usually only lived to about 40 years of age.
Clock Face Painter
It wasn’t only during Victorian times where you could get poisoned by heavy metals, but also in the early 1900s. A group of female workers, who became famous under the name Radium Girls, would spend their days painting glow in the dark paint on clock dials. They were paid a penny and a half per dial, and were told that the glow in the dark paint that they used was completely safe and innocuous, even though the scientists at U.S. Radium, who were involved in its manufacturing, used tongs, lead aprons and masks to handle it. You’d think at the sight of that you’d get a bit suspicious but, like I said previously: “simpler times” and evidently “simpler people”. The Radium Girls would usually lick the tips of their brushes to keep them pointed and some of the “girls”, in an attempt to lighten the daily doldrums, would paint their face, teeth and nails with the radioactive material.
This is where the story gets dark and disgusting (which you should have seen coming, considering we are talking about scientists that convinced people a radioactive material was indeed safe). In a campaign of misinformation started by the defense contractor of the watches, the deaths and illness of the workers were attributed to syphilis, the oft spread sexual transmitted disease of the time, in an attempt to cover up the radiation poisoning and tarnish the women’s reputations. After struggling to even find legal representation, the Radium Girls were awarded damages in a suit against U.S. Radium and set a precedent for future employee safety standards.
Most kids today live a joyful, playful existence. They spend their summer days playing video games, riding their bikes and getting into sitcom-like mischief. Past eras were not so kind, and there as so many jobs that would make adults scream in terror which were exclusively intended for young children. Here are just a few of them.
Mudlarks & Toshers
Both of these jobs were popular during Victorian Era London; both involved wading waist high in a slurry of corpse soup, human excrement and road run-off; both involved children. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Victorian Era England, but if you’ve read Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or heard about Jack the Ripper, you know that the Victorian Era was dirty, miserable and with high levels of poverty. So these children, in an attempt to make some money, would either wade through the sewers or the muddy banks of the Thames during low tide to scavenge materials. Not only was the work backbreaking but the smallest cut could send these children to an early grave, because this was during a period where medicine was just realizing the benefit of antiseptics and false teeth, and real teeth were taken from death penalty convicts, corpses or even the desperately poor. Not exactly a time in history you wanted to be poor and playing Broken Bottle Infection Roulette.
Mule Scavengers & Piecers
So, we’re staying in the horrifying Victorian/Industrial Era – why, you ask? Because, apparently, human life had less value than a pair of heavily used skivvies. The problem with adults is that they are so damn bulky they can’t fit under heavy, fast-moving machinery, but kids can! And that’s exactly what these poor children did: they belly-crawled under still-moving machinery in cotton mills to gather wayward pieces of yarn and cotton while being extremely cautious of the heavy iron machines whirling inches above their head. In the only documented case, a child’s head of only 13 was completely crushed by a huge industrial wheel. The other job was called a Piercer which would involve the child reaching over moving machinery to reconnect broken strands of cotton. This often resulted in broken and amputated limbs and fingers. Maybe amputation is too light of a term: the limbs and fingers were actually torn away from the child’s body by mechanical force. Oh, also, the kids suffered mental breakdowns from the loud, constant noise and constant danger of bodily harm.
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Are there any other jobs you can think of that could have killed you in the past? Let me know in the comments section below.