Dirty and/or Horrible Jobs of Southern Alberta’s Past

So, you think your job stinks …

The following is from the Lethbridge Historical Society’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/LethbridgeHistoricalSociety. The author’s name is not known, but I extend my thanks for a most fascinating topic.
A "honey wagon" - c. 19112, courtesu the Lethbridge Historical Society.
A “honey wagon” – c. 19112, courtesu the Lethbridge Historical Society.

When you ask about the worst, most dirty/horribles jobs in Lethbridge and southern Alberta history, many people immediately respond with coal mining.

Certainly it was a dangerous job. In 90 years of coal mining in the Lethbridge area, over 100 men were killed. The coal miner faced many dangers – explosions, cave-ins, dangers with the carts and more. If they survived these dangers, then there were the long term problems of black lung and breathing problems. And certainly it was a dirty job with the coal almost impossible to remove – most certainly and there’s a reason it’s the one that immediately comes to mind.

But there were also other jobs that could certainly make the list of dirty/horrible jobs.

In 1907 Lethbridge City Council decided that a scavenger should be hired. The duties of the scavenger would be to clean the privies (outhouses) and pick up garbage but also to remove the dead animals from the coulees. The winter of 1906-07 was a legendary one for the cold and snow. Come spring there was said to be 40 head of cattle found dead around the coulees and community of Lethbridge (many, many more out across the country). It was the scavenger’s responsibility to collect and remove the dead animals. They then had to be buried or burned. The said would dispose of the hides of the animals.

Eventually the job of dead animal scavenger would be separated from the job of “Night Soil Scavenger”. This rather intriguing job title belonged to the person who cleaned the outhouses around town. In September 1909 E.P. Mee was contracted at $25/week. The city would supply the lime.

Then, of course, all of those lucky people who had to clean out the bed pans and other indoor toilets. Lucky, lucky people.

If that doesn’t sound bad enough, think about how hard it can sometimes be to give your dog a bath. Now imagine have to bath a cow? Or thousands of cattle and other animals?

A typical cattle dip. Cattle are herded through a sluice containing a bath of mostly diluted sulphur or other like fungicide or pesticide.
A typical cattle dip. Cattle are herded through a sluice containing a bath of mostly diluted sulphur or other like fungicide or pesticide.

Mange is an external parasite on cattle (cattle can get mange, mites, lice, etc). In 1899 mange was noted in herds around the Little Bow and Lethbridge areas. People were aware that there was mange in the area earlier but by 1899 it was noted to be a real problem.

The way to get rid of mange was to run/swim cattle through a mange dip or large vat. The vat was commonly filled with items such as sulphur and lime that were heated together. Mange problems in the area caused returning problems in the area primarily between 1899 and 1908. In 1904 194 vats were built across southern Alberta and approximately a million cattle were run through the vats – 547,705 cattle were dipped initially and then later that year 422,805 were dipped a second time. In 1907, compulsory dips were required again. Imagine the smell of sulphur, lime and wet cattle? Imagine the work of buildings the vats/dips and getting the cattle to and through them? Probably not the greatest fun ever.

Laundry certainly had to be have been one of those horrible jobs. Also dangerous when you think of heating and moving large pots of hot water and working with hot irons. We have several reports of people dying at this time from accidentally pouring boiling water on themselves.

The horribleness of doing laundry was compounded if you had to make your own lye soap. There are a few methods for making lye soap but it involved mixing wood ash with water (hot water rather than cold because hot water makes your lye soap stronger). You will also want to add some quick lime to the mixture to make it even better. This takes a couple of days (and is a little more complicated than explained here) and one way that will show if this mixture is strong enough to make lye soap – if a chicken feather dissolves in it, you know you have it made to the right strength!

This caustic mixture then needs to be set out so the water evaporates and you are left with lye crystals which you can use in the soap making. Oh, and don’t forget some of the rendered animal fat you’ll need for the next step.

These were just some of the dirty/horribles jobs that came to us as we’ve been researching and reading. There are also many others. So please send in your ideas and if we get enough we’ll gladly do a 2nd article on horrible jobs of local history.

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