Obsolete jobs: Three generations, three dead-end careers

Oct 08, 2019
The jobs we did that no longer exist. Source: Getty Images

My grandmother owned and ran a haberdashery shop. My mother was a ticket writer. My first job was as a stenographer. My daughter’s friends had never heard of any of the above, sharing much frowning and puzzled looks over the word ‘haberdashery’ in particular.

My Mum’s professional journey started as a ticket writer at GJ Coles, Melbourne, in the days when counter-top items and window displays portrayed a discrete cardboard price tag in beautiful cursive writing. These tags were very elegant, a script done in pen and ink with a nib that allowed the thick/thin lines to flow. She also turned her hand to ‘seasonal displays’, with banners and point of sale material to decorate the large Bourke Street store.

Bourke Street, Melbourne in 1959. Supplied: Debra Trayler

At home, Mum had a stash of paints, inks, pens, brushes, and all kinds of wonderful things that had to be packed away when the kitchen table changed at 4pm to become my brother Clive’s and my homework space.

For we kids, Christmas was magic! Mum used to bring home huge rolls of paper, coloured cardboard lengths, bags of ‘this and that’ and pots of goodness-only-knows-what, then seemingly overnight a 6-foot long Santa sleigh had sprouted in our lounge room! Clive and I were allowed to adorn cotton wool, glitter or tinsel, all with Mum’s approving eye!

In our lounge room she created faux brick chimneys with Santa out the top and one year, a full-size deer with tinsel in its antlers! Dad would pour a beer and say what a clever girl she was and “it’s the best one yet — better than the one you did last year!”

As time passed, the need for ticket-writers and in-house display makers gave way to outsourced production houses where price tickets and the like were mass produced. Mum ended up serving behind the general store counters, which she hated. And the job title ‘Ticket Writer’ passed into oblivion, never to be seen again.

In my four years of high school, I took typing and shorthand every year as I really enjoyed it. Typing was done in its own room full of manual typewriters. Under each large grey cover, the machine sported a long steel arm — a carriage return — to clunk at the end of a paragraph, moving the paper up a line, and a horizontally-striped red and black ribbon where the keys would strike.

An Underwood Five typewriter. Supplied: Debra Trayler

In order to avoid a bunch of keys hitting each other simultaneously and jamming (resulting in fingers covered in red and black ink!) we were taught to type with rhythm — and much to our joy, the best way to gain that skill was by typing to music. We were asked to bring in our favourite records! “Dear Sir, In relation to yours of the first inst. …” was happily tapped out to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Creedence Clearwater Revival.

In the 1960s there were three ‘codes’ of shorthand around, Pittman’s, Gregg and Dacomb. Our school taught the latter, and even today I still remember the rules of leading, doubling and when to use knot ‘n’.

As I finished school somewhat peremptorily at the end of 1969, my Dad arranged for me to become a stenographer in his office at Gilbarco, manufacturers and installers of petrol pumps and industrial heating. Not the most imaginative area to be working in when only 16 years old, but I was glad to be doing something that I understood and was good at … taking shorthand, transcribing it and knowing all about carbon paper, blind copies (bcc — still used on emails today), and how not to tear holes in the paper when using a typewriter rubber!

Like my mother before me, as time passed and technology surged ever forwards, the job title stenographer faded into oblivion as dictating machines blossomed. I worked at many varied jobs in the decades that followed but it wasn’t until the new century that I finally found my home in journalism and graphic design; an area of expertise where being able to touch type was, is, a definite bonus!

With such a keyboard-oriented society today, I find it incredible that younger people can’t touch type, even in IT where ‘hunt and peck’ with two fingers is rife. Let’s hope the QWERTY keyboard doesn’t join us in oblivion, I’m too old now to reinvent myself!

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