Icemen and Pinsetters
In a wonderful story, NPR looked at “The Jobs of Yesteryear.” Among those they discussed were pinsetters, elevator operators, icemen, and lamplighters. For each one, while technology made the occupation obsolete, the economy benefited with a higher GDP and a better standard of living.
In bowling alleys, during the beginning of the 20th century, a pingirl or a pinboy would have been stationed near the gutters waiting to pick up and reset the the pins after they were knocked down. As late as the 1940s, you could still find pinsetters.
Manually driven, the first elevators were operated by men and women who controlled the levers and “drove” the lift. Even when push buttons were first used, because people could not stop at multiple floors, they still needed operator driven elevators. (Unable to stop in between, each trip went from one floor to a selected destination.) Around 1950, the need for elevator operators began to dwindle.
How to keep ice boxes cold before the electric refrigerator became commonplace? Hauling 25-100 pound chunks of ice, the iceman came to neighborhoods several times a week. During the 1940s, icemen became obsolete.
And finally, in 1900 or so, in NYC, lamplighters were supposed to light 200-300 gas streetlights an hour.
The Economic Lesson
Hearing about obsolescence, economists would cite structural change. Used economically, structural refers to the building blocks of an economy. When the basic building blocks change, economic life is transformed. Indeed, with the arrival of such new technology as electricity, the auto, and the transistor, we had progress as a plus and structural unemployment as a minus until those workers were retrained with skills that were more suited to the new economy.