Horse-and-Buggy Workers in the Modern World

Bob Berkman can sense the nostalgia and fascination in other modern-day Americans when he describes his job as a manufacturer of player piano rolls.

"People are surprised that it still exists," he says. "But they seem to find it a genuinely interesting and somehow reassuring thing that such an old-fashioned thing still goes on. And virtually everybody you speak to knows of a player piano and remembers it with affection."

Berkman is plying a dying trade. His job began in a time when Americans had their milk delivered, rode in horse-drawn carriages and kept ships from crashing onto shore with a network of lighthouses.

So what ever happened to America's milkmen and other such workers? Believe it or not, they're still around.

In an age of global warming, traffic jams and e-mail spam, found a handful of old-timers with an eye to the past:

Silent Movie Organist
Player Piano Parts Supplier
Horse Carriage Maker
Typewriter Repairman
Lighthouse Keeper

View All Six Retro Workers

Such old-time jobs are out there because they are still needed, says Peter Liebhold, a technology historian at the National Museum of American History in Washington, who has studied American occupations. After all, America needs a select few horse-drawn buggy whip makers, radio tube manufacturers and lamplighters, as long as there are people driving horse buggies, collecting old radios and keeping old-fashioned lamps.

"What you're thinking about is the nature of the history of technology," he says. "While technology continues to move on, [older technology] also continues to exist, so the people who service those technologies also continue to exist."

Old Meets Modern

You might think that people who hold onto old-time jobs are holdouts stubbornly guarding the old ways to the end, but that's only partially true.

"Things get more modern all the time, and you have to keep that in mind," says Willi Kitz, 68, a typewriter repairman for more than 50 years. "Anybody who doesn't keep that in mind, he's going to be lost after awhile."

To that end, Kitz has broadened his expertise to include copiers, fax machines and computer printers in recent decades, though he still gets most excited about fixing manual typewriters in his San Francisco-area shop.

Likewise, Marshall Rice, 63, still delivers milk in Davis, Calif., 35 years after he began, but he has gone beyond dairy to deliver muffins, bakery bread and breakfast meats, turning his service into "a rolling grocery store" catering to time-pressed, dual-career families.

Berkman's company, QRS Music Technologies Inc. of Buffalo, N.Y., still produces paper rolls for player pianos, but also offers digitally encoded songs for the compact disks that drive the modern player pianos made by the company's Story & Clark subsidiary in Seneca, Pa.

In another bow to modernity, QRS' big piano roll sellers have gone well beyond Scott Joplin rags to include the latest show tunes, "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic, and even "The Macarena."

"I always associated ragtime with player pianos, but I've learned that it's pop music that keeps the lights on here," says Berkman, 48, QRS' chief operating officer.

Modernity can be a welcome breeze in a nostalgic business — especially when the alternative is obsolescence.

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