Cooper, bowling pin setter: A look at lost jobs of the past

Milkman Donald Cornell of Watertown on the job. (Submitted Photo)

By Wendy Peterson Biorn, Carver County Historical Society

A news article by U.S. Today recently announced the top 10 disappearing jobs in the US. One job, a word processor or typist, had a 10 year decline of 54 percent. The reason given for the decline was advances in technology and computers (Hess, Frohlich, US Today, Aug. 30, 2013).
How many pair of shoes do you own? There was a day when a person would own one or two pairs of shoes. One pair was for work and the other for “good,” when you were out in public. If your shoes needed a new heel, or the sole of the shoe had a hole, you would bring it to a cobbler to be repaired. Waconia is fortunate to have a cobbler, but you would have to look a long time to find another person with these skills.
A cobbler and typist are two examples of jobs that have become virtually extinct due to changes in technology or the increased affluence of society. There is no question that societal needs change, but do you know, or can you remember, any of these skills?
Cooper – There was a day when buckets, barrels, butter churns and casks were made of wood. The cooper’s business and the items made were referred to as a cooperage. A “dry” or “slack” cooper made containers for dry items, such as a firkin which stored flour or sugar. A cooper who makes items that store or will be used with wet items such as beer, washtubs, butter churns, or a water bucket is known as a “wet” and “tight” cooper.
Lamplighters – Streetlights were once fueled with by oil or kerosene. They were lit by hand each night and manually extinguished each morning. A street sweeper was a real job at one time. The street sweeper was responsible for keeping the street clean and free from trash. An unpleasant job in the day when people threw their slop buckets out the window.
Ice cutter – The ice cutter cut ice from local lakes for use during warmer weather. The ice man delivered stored ice to homes and restaurants.
Delivery was through a small opening in a person’s home. The ice was placed in the upper part of the icebox used to keep food items cool. As the ice melted it drained through a small pipe into the water box below the “frig.” This water pan had to be emptied on a regular basis to prevent the water from overflowing onto the floor. The word “frig” is short for Frigidaire, a brand which still produces refrigerators.
Wainwright and wheelwright – A wainwright makes and repairs wagons. A wheelwright makes and repairs wheels. Both occupations were of the utmost importance, prior to the popularity of the automobile.
Milkman – The milkman is another long lost job. Glass milk bottles had a small cardboard cover instead of the plastic jugs and covers we are used to. Non-homogenized milk separates into layers of milk and cream. Sounds simple enough, but unless you have access to a dairy or buy non-homogenized milk at co-op, you have never seen the milk separate from the cream. Older bottles had a glass bulb at the top.
It was here that the fresh cream settled when it separated. To remove the cream, a small spoon with a curved handle was inserted into the bulb. It should be noted that there are still a few milk home delivery services available.
Blacksmith – The blacksmith was an essential part of every community. In modern terms, think of the business as a gas station. If your horse lost a shoe, it was the blacksmith you visited to get back on the road. If a person only shod horses, he or she would be called a farrier. The blacksmith made a variety of items, from plows to nails.
Switchboard operator – Can you imagine, only having one telephone and it cannot be removed from your home? Your phone is mounted to the wall. You pick up the handset and look for the buttons to push, but there are no buttons, no dial. You hear a female voice who asks you what number you would like to dial. You say number one please.
To people born in the era of cell phones, this scenario cannot be comprehended. In Waconia, the phone number 2 was given to Erhard’s Grocery Store. The number 1 was owned by Andrew and Annie Schneider whose daughter, Grace, worked at the Pioneer Phone Company. Miss Ernie Miller, of Watertown, is the first switchboard operator listed in the Carver County Historical Society newspaper index, in 1908.
Bowling pin setter – Have ever bowled with a child using plastic pins? Each time, you have to set up the pins to have them knocked down again. Take that mental image to a full size bowling alley.
In the day before automatic pin setters, young boys were hired to sit above the pins at the end of the lane. My father’s first job was as a pin setter. The job didn’t pay much, but this was a depression era job that people were happy to have.
Gas station attendant – Some of us can still remember the day when you went to a gas station and sat in the car while the attendant filled your tank, washed the windows and checked your oil, and the gas cost under 25 cents a gallon.
Milliner – A milliner made women’s hats. The first millinery in Young America was the Mau Store, owned by Ida Mau. Mau was born in 1870 and died in 1920. The most well known milliner in Carver County was Susie Schmidt Hanson of Waconia. This was one of the few jobs that a respectable woman could have.
A hatter made men’s felt hats. This term is commonly used in context with the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Felt hats were cured through the use of mercury. Hatters and mill workers could not avoid inhaling the fumes. The fumes caused neurological disease, slurred speech, and distorted vision.
Jobs change with the needs, but the expressions used to describe the jobs remain. Mad as a hatter is just one of many we use, often without knowing the source. Do you know the meaning behind “the rule of thumb,” or why an accountant can occasionally be lovingly called a “bean counter”? That is a story for another time.