Where have all the copy boys gone?

Posted: September 04, 2012

By Joyce Eisenberg

and Ellen Scolnic

Where have all the copy boys, blacksmiths, and elevator operators gone?

We could ask the same of coopers, the artisans who crafted wooden barrels back in the days before plastic bottles - when households needed churns, casks, and hogsheads to hold liquids.

The word milliner might ring a bell with some hat-wearing church ladies. But, really, when was the last time you bought a custom-made, hand-fitted hat?

Jobs must change with the times. Grandpop Henry delivered blocks of ice for kitchen iceboxes in a horse-drawn wagon. Years later, he switched to a truck and joined the Teamsters.

A dead landline recently had us looking for an old-fashioned telephone repairman. We blew the dust off the Yellow Pages and flipped to "Small Appliance Repair," only to learn that the independent telephone repairman is extinct.

The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are disappearing, too. Instead, you can buy filet mignon from the Omaha Steaks website, get the location of the cupcake truck via Twitter, and order handmade soy candles from Etsy.

But you can't get your hair cut online, which is why hands-on service providers, like manicurists and massage therapists, are still around. Patty, the colorist at Curlz, will never be replaced by a robot.

As our kids wander along their own career paths, we find it hard to give them advice. Although we know what it takes to become a doctor or an accountant, we don't know what skills one needs to be a distance-learning manager or luxury-brand consultant.

A twenty-something friend was recently selecting her occupation from a drop-down menu in an online form, fully expecting "holistic life coach" to be one of the choices. She had to settle for "other."

It's especially hard to wrap our heads around 21st-century jobs in the tech sector. We finally understand that a search-engine optimizer is the person Frank calls to make sure "Frank's Honest Auto Repair" is the first name to pop up on Google. But what's on the to-do list of a cloud architect or mobile-app manager?

We do know what's on the agenda of a professional pooper-scooper. It's one of the many tasks that people are outsourcing, but not to India - tasks people used to do themselves but are now hiring others to do.

Pet owners can avail themselves of dog walkers and canine behaviorists. Parents can turn to baby-proofing technicians and summer-camp consultants. They'll be lucky if they don't need the services of professional nitpickers when head lice spread through the third grade.

Along with tech and personal service jobs, green jobs are on the upswing. We're in favor of going green. We recycle and carry reusable water bottles. And we have instituted all these measures without the help of a corporate sustainability manager or recycling coordinator. But we might need a wind-turbine fabricator if we want our homes LEED-certified.

So as we drive home from the beach on Labor Day and zoom through the E-ZPass lane, we'll take a moment to salute the one remaining toll-taker. Her job may be on the endangered list.


Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic, also known as the Word Mavens, are the authors of the Dictionary of Jewish Words. They blog at http://thewordmavens.wordpress.com and tweet at @thewordmavens.

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