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.

Berkman, a one-time dental student, began working at the music roll plant in 1975 after impressing officials there by creating his own homemade music roll. He still loves player pianos' mechanical intricacies and old-time feel, but says he might not have stuck with his job if the newer, digital models had not come along to keep things interesting and somewhat modern.

"The roll business is no longer the largest part of our business," he says. "If you'd liken it to RCA Victor, if they'd stuck to the 78 they would no longer be in business."

Lost Jobs of the Future

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't bother to compile separate figures for the number of workers in occupations as rare as milkman, typewriter repair technician and lighthouse keeper, according to Mike Pilot, chief of the bureau's Division of Occupational Outlook.

But because of automation, market forces and other factors, there are more prominent modern-world occupations that could one day be headed the way of the 78-rpm record.

For instance, there were 54,000 U.S.-based telephone operators in 2000, but Pilot's division predicts their numbers may shrink to 35,000 in 2010.

Meter readers, ubiquitous to many modern homeowners, may one day evoke the same nostalgia as milkmen, as more utility companies read meters remotely. Their numbers are expected to fall from 49,000 to 36,000 this decade.

Farmers and ranchers — icons of rural America — also appear to be fading at a rapid rate, Pilot says.

Perhaps the most endangered occupation classification Pilot's division tracks is railroad brake, signal and switch operators. There were an estimated 22,000 of them in America in 2000, but as automation takes effect, there are projected to be just 9,000 jobs in the field in 2010.

"A lot of the brake and switch operators were the people you used to see on cabooses, and you don't see a lot of cabooses any more," Pilot says.

It can happen in the blink of an eye.

"You never really think about it and then you turn around and all of those people are gone, and when you do see it slipping and you talk to these people, it's really kind of sad," Liebhold says. "Work is a good and noble thing, and people take pride in their jobs. … When those jobs do go away, it's a terrible, life-altering thing for them."

Misplaced Nostalgia?

So one day, people may be nostalgic for meter readers, but should they be?

"Very often, people look back on these curious things and remember them as the good old days, which are not always too accurate," Liebhold says. "Harm can be done if people have romantic sensibilities on the past that aren't really true, and then they use that to project onto the future."

For example, he cited the nostalgia for old-fashioned trolleys that is often expressed by people who never rode them.

"In actuality, it was pretty documented at the time that people hated trolleys," Liebhold says, adding that people complained that the seats were hard, the cars were hot in summer and cold in winter, and some stops forced them to dodge passing auto traffic.

"One reason buses really dominated the market … is they were a lot more comfortable," Liebhold says.

But still, the continued existence of old trolleys, and occupations, can be enlightening.

"You gain insight," Liebhold says. "It's very difficult to really understand the complexity of the world we live in. And by listening to the stories of others, you start to see life through a different prism, and how things really get done. It's all about learning."