Newsboys, fire-spotters, net-makers

Over time, work vanishes or changes. What happens then?

Posted 7/22/22

REGION — “Number, please?”

You only see her in old movies now: a woman, headset on and a massive switchboard in front of her, plugging in cords to patch calls to the right …

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Newsboys, fire-spotters, net-makers

Over time, work vanishes or changes. What happens then?


REGION — “Number, please?”

You only see her in old movies now: a woman, headset on and a massive switchboard in front of her, plugging in cords to patch calls to the right person.

Phone companies employed 235,000 women as operators by 1930, according to In an era when women’s work opportunities were limited, that made a big difference.

And now operators are mostly gone. By 1940, direct dialing meant they lost their jobs, although the rollout was slower in rural America. If you ask around, you might still find a former operator here.

Shift change

When did you last see a newsboy? Makers of shirt collars? A milkman?

Jobs are altered. News isn’t announced by homeless boys anymore. Shirt collars are attached to the shirt. And while there may still be home milk delivery, it’s a lot less common.

Available work depends on a lot of factors: what is needed, what is wanted, what people can afford. On who is willing to start a business, who is willing to work there.

And all that has changed over time.

The old, new again

At Fort Delaware, you can meet people who still practice the trades of the past. The living history museum in Narrowsburg shows what homes and work were like in the 18th century.

Many of those jobs have been, if not lost entirely, moved into the realm of the artist or hobbyist.

Or the historical interpreter.

Just using the materials changes the way you think about possessions, said interpreter Arden Showers, working in the wood shop at Fort Delaware in May. “They prioritized caring for things, using and maintaining them.”

Depending on where you lived and how much money you had, 18th-century people produced what they needed, rather than just buying it off the shelf.

Residents at Cushetunk—the settlement that Fort Delaware represents—would have traveled to cities to “shop,” Showers said. Items purchased by the wealthy “would have been much more focused on quality and all handcrafted.”

Reusing and recycling

People’s things were, fundamentally, just metal, wood or fabric; were there to be reused.

Raw materials often cost more and things were harder to get. Turning something into something else was just part of a material’s lifespan.

Blacksmith Ward Oles, also at Fort Delaware that day, pointed out that his job is fundamentally recycling. “You can get enough material from half a horseshoe to make stock for two sets of tines,” he said, indicating a wrought-iron fishing spear.

Blacksmiths made nails, hinges, axes, candleholders—basically everything made of metal. The job was crucially important, especially in an up-and-coming community that was building new homes and work areas.

In addition to making the metal parts of the tools, blacksmiths “fixed and repaired tools,” Oles said. Smiths sometimes also did farrier work, shoeing horses.

But the world moved on. When factories began churning out metal items fast and cheaply, there was less need for smiths.

When cars became the transport of choice, the blacksmiths often became auto mechanics, Oles said.

“It was a foundational trade,” he said. For centuries, everything metal “was touched by a smith.” Eventually, even car parts.

What those jobs meant

At Fort Delaware now—but doubtless also in the past—“there’s a sense of community,” said Showers (they/them).

They were using a draw shave to make a tool handle. They were also making a point.

“The experiential side of recreating a handcrafting community, even on such a small scale, parallels and highlights that kind of inherent community interconnectedness,” they said later in an email. It “quickly becomes      impossible to avoid in a more organic, human-based and autonomous community.”

It’s a chance to work with materials, to craft them into something needed by humans. “It innately brings humans back into being part of the larger ecosystem,” Showers said. “It’s cyclical and connected in an organic way.”

They cautioned that thinking about work, thinking about jobs lost or otherwise, carries baggage. It is colored by our perspectives now. Work was different in the 18th century; it was different in the 19th. Do not forget that some jobs were only available to certain people. Do not forget that power underpinned it all, that backbreaking labor made others comfortable.

The lost jobs and the complex, sometimes pain-filled community of which they were a key part, will not be back.

The question remains: what will happen when jobs disappear now? Will people find new work and new connections? Can we keep others from vanishing into history’s black hole, forgotten?

Maybe practicing the work, even as a hobbyist or at Fort Delaware, helps us remember both the lost world of the past and what could happen.

“What we’re doing here,” said Showers, “is so important.”

work, operators, newsboy, Fort Delaware, historical interpreter, handcrafts, blacksmiths


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