From river launderettes and crucifix carpenters to streetlamp lighters and shoeshiners – in just the last few decades, countless jobs that had existed for centuries have disappeared. Let’s take a glimpse of these lost trades and professions, because there’s a lot we can learn from what is now obsolete.
THE RIVERANK LAUNDRY WORKERS
The city of Madrid, including the royal family, relied on thousands of riverbank laundry workers to wash their clothes. The Manzanares river was home to a strong community of dozens of generations of launderette businesses. They’d been there for centuries, but then disappeared very suddenly with the introduction of the domestic washing machine.
The buildings in this picture have been demolished, and all the steps that led down to the river are gone. The river bank has since been developed, leaving the only evidence of this scenic profession in photographs and stories.
THE CHILDREN’S TUK TUK DRIVER
A novel way to do the school run for the little ones.
THE CRUCIFIX MAKERS
Crucifixes are still made by hand, but no longer on such a scale as in the photograph below due to a fall in demand.
Once a common profession, shoe shining now exists only in very rare cases having become all but obsolete because of fashion-driven disposability of shoes.
Nowadays, if you spot a shoe shiner on Gran Vía, chances are, they’re very poor, and probably homeless.
THE PLATFORM STATION MASTER
You can still see dozens of these small offices tucked into the curved walls of most station platforms. Once used to keep logs and to provide a comforting staff presence, they’ve been replaced by machines and security cameras.
THE WATER BOYS
After filling up these ceramic bottles (botijos) at the municipal fountains, the water boys could offer glasses of cool water to parched passersby.
A botijo is a traditional Spanish container made of porous clay used to store and cool water. It works by the evaporative cooling method: the water inside filters through to the outside, where it evaporates and therefore cools the container. It’s even more effective at cooling water when placed in the sun because the sun’s heat increases the rate of evaporation – perfect on a hot Madrid summer’s day.
THE CABLE GIRLS
A powerful, female-only workforce, who at times were believed to doubled up as spies.
THE MATCHSTICK LADY
What a tough life this old lady must have had to be relying on making a profit on a single matchstick.
THE STREETSIDE BARBER
Street-side barbers were prevalent here until around the 1950s. Many elderly men today will remember getting their beard shaved on Gran Vía while hundreds of people walked past.
THE BEER KIOSKERO
This should definitely still exist, but it would mean relaxing the law against botellón.
THE ICE CHIPPERS
Definitely the coolest job in town.
Made obsolete with the conversion of gas lamps to electric lamps, though many original gas lamps can still be found around Madrid, with bulbs instead of wicks.
A tinsmith was a common trade before the industrial revolution. Typically a men’s job, the tinsmith specialised in making sheet-metal objects such as cutlery, cookie cutters, candle holders and tin roof tiles – the type that cats aren’t particularly fond of, especially on a hot day.
THE PRAWN GUY
This photo was taken on Plaza Dos de Mayo in the 1950s. It must have taken ages to lay out all of those prawns – clearly someone who took pride in their job, if the dapper outfit wasn’t already a giveaway.
THE STREET PERFORMER
People once paid a few pesetas to have a go at outweighing a real bear on a seesaw. How times have changed.
THE TRAM TRACK CLEANER
I wish this job still existed, because it would mean we’d have trams!
LAST BUT NOT LOST, THE STREET KNIFE SHARPENER
Remarkably, this job still exists. The melancholic sound of the afilador’s undulating whistle makes my hair stand on end because it’s truly a sound of the past.