Once upon a time, a young boy (or girl) could get (often dangerous) work to help support the family in trying times. Modernization, automation, and child labour laws have made these jobs all obsolete.
#1. The job was about quality control as a breaker boy. The task was to remove slate and other impurities from the product of the mine - and no hazardous pay for the inevitable injuries, asthma, and black lung disease. What industry used breaker boys?
Anthracite mines would put the coal through a breaker, crushing the rocks down to smaller sizes for different purposes. The coal rocks would then come down the chute to the breaker boys, who (without gloves) would sort them by size and discard any impurities found. The days were long and hard (typically six days a week for ten hours a day) with other hazards than just sharp rocks and bad air. Boys could often lose a limb just moving around the processing plant, or even be crushed and die. Records in the USA show the use of breaker boys began in 1866, and even though laws were enacted to forbid the use of boys for the purpose, they were poorly enforced. Even after the technology improved enough to make the job obsolete, breaker boys were still employed until federal child labour laws were enacted in the late 1910s.
#2. It was a dirty job, but you got to be out of doors and meet all kinds of important people. What kind of work involved cleaning a path for men and women in fancy clothes?
The ‘crossing sweeper’ of the 19th century, common in many large European cities, was akin to the ‘windshield cleaner’ of today. It was one step up from begging; a nominal service provided for the hope of a coin. With horses and horse-drawn carriages the common form of transportation, it made for very dirty streets, not to mention other types of refuse. Someone in clean, fancy clothing ran a very real risk of fouling up their nice clothing, thus the opportunity for someone to make some money to prevent such an occurrence. Crossing sweepers came in all ages and genders, but were most often children, the elderly, or people with a physical disability.
#3. Even with automation, the textile industry provided many opportunities for small, hands-on jobs that children were often chosen to do. What was the job title for someone who removed bobbins or spindles from a spinning frame?
Once fully wound, a bobbin or spindle would need to be removed to allow for more spun fiber to be collected. Removing, or ‘doffing’ these items was a job often given to young boys, who were quick and had nimble fingers. When the spinning frame came to a stop, the machine would be swarmed by a group of doffers to quickly exchange filled bobbins and spindles for empty ones. Boys were also employed as sweepers (which is what it sounds like), while girls were often picked to be spinners. These jobs continued to exist until child labour laws stopped them in the early 1900s, and machines were subsequently developed to do the same thing.
#4. Once mined, coal needed to be transported out of the mine along 'roads' too narrow for a man. Children were often used to accomplish this, pushing and pulling a 'corf' (a basket or cart) full of coal to the surface. What was this job title?
All of the options listed were jobs in an early 19th century coal mine in England, often with a whole family employed to do the different jobs in conjunction. The father would be the ‘hewer’, using a hand tool to get the coal from the seam. The mother would be the ‘getter’, putting the hewn coal pieces into the corf for the children to ‘hurry’ to the surface. A ‘hurrier’ had either the job of drawing (pulling) the corf by means of a harness called a ‘gurl’, or thrusting (pushing) the corf from the rear. Children that were too small to move the corf would often carry candles to provide light, or be employed as ‘trappers’, opening and closing ventilation trap doors.
#5. These conical devices can still be found around London, a remnant of a time when 'link-boys' were employed to guide people through the streets at night. What was the purpose of these devices?
In the days before gas lighting in the streets, ‘link-boys’ were hired to guide pedestrians with a lit torch. This could be for the entire trip, or just to and from a vehicle (usually a combined service, chairman and link-boy working together). The term ‘link’ refers to the type of wick on the torch, often made from tow (a coarse fiber) coated in burning pitch.
#6. In the cotton mills of the 18th and 19th centuries, the spinning mule would vibrate intensely, throwing bits of the cotton to the floor beneath the loom. Children employed to gather up the cotton wastage were called 'mule scavengers'.
The cotton wastage was too valuable to leave unused, so young boys and girls were employed to gather it up, as well as clean up dirt and machine oil, typically while the machines were actively running. It wouldn’t do to pause production for any length of time, and there was always the chance that fallen cotton would gum up the machinery if not collected in a timely manner. Of course, with moving machinery, there was a real danger of losing fingers or limbs, or even getting your head crushed. Scavengers had to be ready to lie flat at a moment’s notice to avoid getting struck by moving parts. And if they didn’t do their job to the overseer’s satisfaction, they could look forward to a beating.
#7. Automation has eliminated the need for boys to manually reset bowling pins and return bowling balls at bowling alleys. This position was called 'pinchaser'.
#8. During the 'age of sail', young boys were often recruited to work aboard ships to bring gunpowder from the ship's magazine to the guns during a battle. What was this job called?
Boys (usually between the age of 12 and 14) were commonly used for this role due to how quickly they could navigate the confines of a ship’s lower decks while also being able to easily take shelter behind the ship’s gunwales, being of generally smaller stature. Employment as a powder monkey was often a stepping stone to a longer career with the navy, and even when laws were enacted limiting employment to age 14 and older, the role continued to exist until the end of the 19th century. Another employment opportunity for both boys and girls aboard ship was as a ‘cabin boy’ or ‘ship’s boy’, working as an assistant to the cook, or to the various different officers.
#9. With the advent of printing presses in the Renaissance came the need for apprentices (often boys) to learn from and assist the printer. Over time, they came to be known as 'printer's devils'. Which of these is not one of the proposed origins of the name?
While Johann Gutenberg was never suspected of dealing with the dark arts, the same cannot be said of his business partner Johann Fust. One possible origin of the name came from Fust purportedly selling Gutenberg’s printed bibles to King Louis XI of France, claiming that they were manuscripts done by hand. When the letters were discovered to be identical (you know… what printing looks like), he was accused of witchcraft and imprisoned. Eventually, it was all sorted out after revealing the actual production by moveable-type printing. Another possible origin of the name came from the belief that a mischievous ‘devil’ could be found in every print shop that would cause problems like inverted type or misspelled text. Invariably, it was the apprentice or assistant that would catch the blame.
#10. Perhaps this last one is a myth... there seems to be no verifiable proof that 'whipping boys' actually ever existed. But if they did, their job was to take the punishment earned by someone else. Whose punishment would they take?
According to some accounts, a ‘whipping boy’ was a young boy who was a companion to a prince of equivalent age (or possibly a boy king) who was undergoing tutelage. If the royal youngster did something that would normally earn a beating (as per the social mores of the day), the punishment would instead be delivered to the companion. The thought behind this was that this would make the young royal want to avoid such discomfort from happening to their companion in the future, while still protecting the tutor from potential punishment for striking someone so far above their station.